Versus part II: digital vs. paper

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The concluding part of the two-part rant [read the first part].

At the library, I hear a number of people say that library needs to focus on digital content delivery. Digital content delivery is a good idea because the library users aren’t necessarily geographically close to the collections, and there is also a lot of money to be saved in maintaining a digital collection (no physical space concerns, easier administration, etc.)

This kind of talk has got people worried, and I hear a lot of people saying that the borrowers want books in paper format because they’re easier to read than text on screen. There’s a lot of truth in this as well; people don’t want to read large volumes of text on a computer display; a lot of people are also happy browsing the shelves for books.

This is all well and good, but there seems to be a little animosity between the two camps, which is a bit odd really. The discussion has been polarized so that digital replaces printed matter. This is true in some cases — the electronic journal has replaced the printed journal to a great extent; I am sure that very few people would argue that this is a bad thing. On the other hand, eBooks have yet to become popular among users in the way that traditional printed books are.

One of the reasons for this is that the technologies used to prevent illegal copying of the eBooks actually make eBooks quite useless. It isn’t much fun to sit and read in front of your computer — maybe it’s OK on your Internet-enabled handheld device, as long as you’re within reach of a WiFi antenna and the device supports IPSec VPN. The e-paper devices we’ve been testing are great for reader comfort, but are overpriced, niche products. So it’s paper for reader comfort.

In terms of findability, eBooks fail in Norway because they will typically be imported with complete MARC records, but not in Norwegian. This means that eBooks disappear for users searching in Norwegian for literature. At the same time, users wanting to read literature in Norwegian will also be disappointed if they want an eBook because there are very few titles available in this language. The added value eBooks provide in terms of in-text searching, bookmarking and citation tools is mainly negated by the hurdles in place when they are used in practice. This is a great shame because I think that eBooks are an attractive alternative for many people, not least those with visual and/or cognitive impairments that require text-to-speech and/or large print.

A lot of literature is simply unavailable in anything other than print format — strange because most books produced today start as eBooks (i.e. before they are sent to the printers). This situation doesn’t seem likely to change in the near future, and I doubt that we’ll see the death of printed matter anytime soon. We’ll see a lot of progress on the eBook front once someone comes up with technologies that allow offline viewing without massive restrictions, display without eyestrain and properly catalogued (and thereby findable) eBooks.

There is no argument here: you can’t — presently — go totally digital without disregarding the primary aim of the library: to present a way for users to get the content the want. The format of this content is largely irrelevant; a good digital platform is better for the user and the library. I add “presently” because it isn’t always possible to find a resource in a usable digital format, and digital collections rely on good library infrastructures to make them usable. A case in point here is the success of the eJournal, which has been marred by an utter failure by libraries to provide some coherent and cohesive way of finding what you want 100% of the time. A lot of my time is spent help users find articles that should be available, but seemingly aren’t; this is a total waste of everyone’s time, but the paper-based option isn’t a better alternative.

The good library offers the content users need in the best posisble format; for the foreseeable future this means paper and digital formats. And let’s face it, providing library services that get used means that there is more work for librarians, which is surely only a good thing?😉

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