Perhaps it is unfair to call a survey "science," but the library community's reaction to this survey
treats it like it is science, so I feel justified pointing out that it is just a survey and certainly not conclusive in any way. The survey supports the far more scholarly Pew research on "Libraries, Patrons, and Ebooks
", but suffers from many of the same theoretical issues.
We are in an evolutionary stage in the ebook industry. The Pew study and the survey fail to even attempt addressing this critical issue. Specifically, the advent and availability of ebooks has not reached market and social maturity, so we really cannot extrapolate any long term conclusions from these types of studies. Consumers are still reacting to and absorbing the impact of ebooks. As in every market evolution, consumers' instincts will be driven by prior experience, which is the primary reason library patron's are still buying ebooks after checking them out. They are conditioned to do so.
There is a second reason that is not fully addressed. That is, library ebook delivery platforms are so clunky and painful to use that many patrons may have made the same decision I have. I would rather buy the book than check it out through the library, because the technical ecosystem in libraries is miserable and backwards. There is no attempt to measure how this may be affecting patron behavior in either the Pew study or the ALA/Overdrive survey.
Which leads us back to the simple reality that the broader and long term effects of digitization has been commodification. We see this with the internet, and with music specifically. We will most likely see it with ebooks as well. The ebook market and ecosystem hasn't reached that stage yet. But if it does we can expect to see these surveys and studies become outdated rapidly, because the defining characteristic of a commodity is its fungibility- that is, consumers don't care where they get it from, as long as it is available when they need or want it.
I may be wrong. Consumers may keep their old behavior of wanting to "own" their ebooks. But the industry here is pushing them away from that by not letting us actually "own" the books we buy personally anyway. This may not make sense to you if you have not looked into the legality of ebook ownership, but very few ebooks are actually sold outright- to anyone. Instead they are leased or licensed to a user. As consumers start to realize this, they may react indifferently, or they may think of ebooks more like data on the net. As long as they can get to it, they don't care if they own it. If the second scenario becomes reality (and it has with music), patrons will stop buying ebooks, and these surveys will be irrelevant.
has a similar opinion.
Here is a great post
about the commodification of books from a business perspective. To that I can add a more academic and scholarly perspective. Since I began working with ebooks in 2007, it became clear to me that book culture would never be the same. In using "culture" I am referring to the commodification effect that ebooks are having on the culture that evolved around physical books.Book culture is rooted in the physicality of the book as an object. In contrast, music culture is rooted more in the experience of music and the connection to the artist. This has not always been the case in music culture because historically music could not be mass produced and was limited to folk or high culture. Music's folk roots are one reason it will survive the commodifying effects of digitization, as it was always rooted in a communal experience. It was something to be seen, heard, and experienced. Music also engages human beings more deeply and totally than books or stories, which have always had a primarily cognitive avenue into our minds and hearts. We can't help this because human communication is far more than words. It is a well known cliche that words represent less than 10% of actual communication. Rather most communication occurs on a deeper, physical level. Gestures, facial expressions, intonation, etc. This is why music culture has survived digitization. The industry has been decimated, but music as a culture will always persist, because it is primarily a noncognitive, non-word based experience.
This is what I meant when I said that it engages us more "deeply"- biologically and neurologically it hits more of our triggers. I was not making an artistic or subjective claim about it, but simply noting the science behind it.In contrast, books which have similar folk roots to music require the physicality of the paper format to create the culture we know. This should be obvious even without ebooks, as we have far weaker emotional ties to paperbacks. It is the permanence and transmittable human connection of- and to- a physical hardback book that resulted in book culture.
Without that strong and enduring physicality we revert back to a primitive story culture, but not book culture. If I haven't convinced you yet simply think about the absurdity of trying to leave your ebook files to your grandchildren. The idea really stirs up some deep feelings, doesn't it? Are you getting misty eyed and sentimental as you picture them getting excited and looking through the files to read your margin notes, see the coffee stain, touch the same dog eared page where that beautifully crafted insight first captured your imagination?Not gonna happen. For the reasons I mention above book culture as we have known it these past few hundred years was dependent on the physicality of hardback books. Paperback books began the commodification process years ago, and ebooks are the evolutionary heirs of that process. Fiction will still create a sense of community and "culture", and we will still have book signings. In fact, we need to find ways to make connections between authors and readers stronger now, but we will regress to a story based culture. In all reality, it may not be that different from book culture except that the book itself will not occupy the same prominent position it once did, which is why all those beautiful used book stores are disappearing. Because they were the heart of book culture, but the book is becoming a commodity and losing its place in our hearts and minds.
Instead, they are becoming data. Disposable commodities just like the walkman, mp3 player, ipod, pager, and all other tech we use and throw away in a year when it gets replaced by the latest and greatest update. As we lose the physical book, we are also losing those physical places where book culture thrived. I think libraries have been tacitly admitting this with all the innovations and new directions our services have taken.T
hose of us who love physical books will be like those who love horses. A small deeply connected community that loves this particular moment in the history of transportation and food production, but relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of transportation. A niche culture for people with money and time. Libraries cannot survive serving a niche culture.Libraries don't have to follow the fate of used book stores, because we are not simply about books, but in order to survive we need to think consciously about our relationship to books and how we will move forward in a world where books are disposable commodities, and the culture surrounding them has evolved.Update: Great video that applies.