Monday, October 25, 2010

ebooks: modern-day travel checkers?

One of my favorite moments of the School Library Journal Summit on the Future of Reading involved one of Frances Harris's self-possessed and articulate students saying he didn't purchase first-generation hardware. I admire him from a philosophical point-of-view, and while I believe all files should be device-agnostic as well, I have a real weakness for gadgets, even the ones riddled with the DRM the students also cannily rejected.

I remain convinced that the Kindle delivers the superior reading experience and am working on an ereader pilot project. But, unlike many librarians who have been lauding Amazon for allowing access for up to six simultaneous devices, I plan to begin by using only public domain text without DRM restrictions to manage manually. Isn't that utterly scalable? And we have enough call for spare copies of The Count of Monte Cristo, Ethan Frome, Edgar Allan Poe and Alice in Wonderland that Gutenberg alone could keep hundreds of devices in constant use. Of course, I believe the ultimate leap will be to student-owned hardware that kids can manage themselves.

I have been thinking about ereading for pleasure in terms of thinking about my own adoption of digital video. I purchased my first modern piece of Apple technology as soon as the video iPod became available. Prior to that shift, I had been using a Sony player with a similarly proprietary format and software management system. But the video capabilities proved sufficiently enticing to pull me to the other side. I found it fascinating I was able to download a digital file of a Hollywood blockbuster, a network series that updated itself each week, and converting my own files to watch on that tiny screen or hook into the television.  I remember watching Psych and Heroes for the first time from iTunes.

But my digital consumption habits have shifted in the past year. I realized that I have only purchased one series, from the BBC, in almost 18 months, and I haven't watched any of those episodes yet. The Kindle had supplanted the iPod video in my estimation. I have never used the Kindle daily, it was almost always a device for either travel or convenience, and sometimes for sheer novelty as with the videos or games. The fact of the matter is that there is too much good video content out there for free for me to continue paying the prices demanded for corporately controlled files which, as Francey's students noted as well, I cannot share or convert.   

Because the models are so unfriendly to libraries, the shift to ebooks produces equity issues as well. I bristled when one presenter mentioned requiring permission slips for ereaders. After all, those aren't required for texts of comparable cost or the reference books it's all the rage to interfile and circulate. And there are issues of access. I would never invest in browser-based ebooks (rather than downloadable files) because so many of my students wouldn't be ABLE to connect from home. I'm also concerned about prohibitions against simultaneous use, and 24-hour minimum checkouts when seven periods of students could be using the same print text. 

When I read about the Publishers Association suggesting that physical barriers to downloads limited to library premises, I realized I had to consider my own consumption habits. It's important to not to support models that don't take the missions of libraries and schools into account. On the whole, the Summit reinforced for me the absolute distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for information. Most of the speakers focused on factual retrieval rather than leisure reading, and while that is one role of the school library program, it is not the only one. I think of Elizabeth Hardwick, 

"The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination."

And, like the video iPod, I almost only opt to use the Kindle when traveling. And I wonder what the next miniaturized toy for the airplane will be? I once compared ereaders to electronic football games, but now I think they might be closer to those tiny versions magnetic of travel checkers. Effective and diverting, but no real threat to the more robust and pleasingly tactile objects.

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