Sunday, November 14, 2010

Impact of E-Readers and E-Books on the Profession

E-Readers and E-Books: A Brief History

Enter the year 1971, when college student Michael Hart is struck with the idea to create electronic versions of literary works and publish them worldwide (Lebert, 2009, p. 5). Behold, the birth of the concept of an “e-book.” Hart’s efforts to realize his vision was titled “Project Gutenberg,” and 30 years later, that vision has become a reality in the everyday household thanks to the increasing popularity of e-readers.

E-readers as we know them entered the scene in the early 21st century, but forward-thinking companies have been producing and marketing them since the early 1990’s. The Sony Data Discman, a two-pound, $500.00 piece of equipment, was launched in 1991 and then was followed by the NuvoMedia Rocket eBook Pro just seven years later; the Rocket eBook Pro could hold about 40 books and its competition was scarce. But the demand was virtually nonexistent and production ceased after five years.

However, 10 years later in 2006, Sony stepped into the spotlight and announced an unglamorous yet highly functional e-reader model for $300.00 (Lawinski, 2010, p. 3), and other companies quickly followed suit with great success. Indeed, Amazon’s $399.00 Kindle sold out just six hours after its release in 2007 (p. 4). November of 2009 brought about the launch of Barnes & Noble’s Nook—the purported “answer” to the Kindle. The Nook sold for $259.00 and relied on black & white E-Ink Technology—as did the Kindle—but unlike the Kindle, the Nook provided readers with a small color touch screen to navigate through their digital library (p. 5). The most recent waves in the e-reader world occurred with the launch of Apple’s $499.00 iPad and Borders’ more affordable Kobo e-reader, selling for $149.00 (p. 6). The quality of e-readers continues to improve and they are becoming more affordable.

As a newer trend, e-readers and e-books have a short history, but that will not remain so. The public is thrilled with each progression that technology brings to the e-reader market and, as emerging librarians, we must address how this technology will impact the profession. E-readers continue to grow in popularity, and consumers eagerly anticipate the next model and its new features.

So the question remains: how will this trend impact the librarianship profession?

The Positive Impact of E-Books and E-Readers on the Profession

The response of librarians to e-books has been overwhelmingly positive; this is likely due to the advantages e-readers and e-books bring to the profession.

Overview of the Advantages of E-Books in Libraries:

  • Electronic format eliminates risk of misplacement, theft, or damage
  • No overdue fines
  • Accessible from home
  • Low porcessing costs lead to budget savings
  • Advanced search capabilities
  • Reduces weight on students' backs

Librarians have a keen sense for the significance of e-books in their libraries. Even though the incorporation of the electronic reader is still developing, librarians are embracing the new technology and recognizing that e-books are an opportunity to increase their existing collections while providing an improved customer-oriented experience. Students often research at libraries, and e-books offer a wide variety and range of content. Additionally, e-books permit greater simultaneous access to frequently used materials. Patrons no longer have to wait for items to be returned, nor do they need to be in the library to access the materials.

Librarians no longer need to spend hours processing books now that the books are digitized. This allows librarians to focus on other duties. For example, librarians can now easily monitor the usage of these books in their electronic formats while simultaneously making broad judgments regarding collection development and budgets (Renner, 2010, para. 2). The increasing presence of e-books enables convenient research for patrons and efficient management strategies for librarians.

School librarians may experience the benefits of e-books as well. E-books expand the school’s library collection and make more books accessible to students at little or no additional costs to the school in some cases. (Cavanaugh, 2005, para. 1). E-books present an overall benefit to the operations in the media center as well; there is preserved shelf space and a reduced need to reshelf, locate, or identify misplaced books, as explained by an article in Library Media Connection. Many books have passed into the public domain, so librarians can provide free access to them without overdue fines or the once-inevitable need to replace lost or damaged books. E-books save schools money (para. 3).

Most importantly, e-books help supplement a school’s curriculum. They are engaging because they appeal to younger, tech-oriented generations while allowing the librarian to tailor, select, and suggest books according to reading levels. Through e-books, students are exposed to sound, animation, and interactive activities that promote learning and reading comprehension (Rhodes, 2007, p. 255). Even doctors support the growing e-book trend, as it lightens the physical burden on students’ backs. “The average middle school student [carries] more than 20 pounds of books in a book bag” (Cavanaugh, 2006, p. 2), but now can carry hundreds of books in two pounds or less. E-books have an undeniably positive impact on the profession, however, there are some potential drawbacks that may negatively affect librarians as well.

E-Books and Obstacles: The Negative Effects

On July 19, 2010, Amazon made a surprising announcement: their customers were purchasing more Kindle e-books than hardcover books. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, was surprised by the figures. He declared the news was “astonishing when you consider that we've been selling hardcover books for 15 years [. . .] and Kindle books for 33 months" (, 2010, para. 2).

While many people had been surprised by the news that digital books are becoming more popular than print books, we shouldn’t be. Predictions that e-books would one day replace hardcover books began even before e-readers became popular. A 1992 Library Journal article asserted that "books constitute such an integral part of our society—both reflecting and shaping its culture—that it is hard to imagine life without them. But the printed book, like any other technology, will not live forever” (Kurzweil, 1992, p. 80).

The transformation from print to e-books presents new challenges for libraries and library professionals. The greatest challenge to libraries of the future may ultimately be staying relevant once most library books are accessible to users in digital format from the convenience of their own homes. Currently, librarians are struggling to embrace existing e-reader technology that is not always user-friendly, affordable, or even wanted by some library users.

According to a recent survey, two-thirds of public libraries, one-third of school libraries and almost all academic libraries currently offer e-books (Singer, 2010). However, not all libraries can afford to provide e-readers or purchase access to e-books, and directors of smaller and poorer libraries are expressing concerns about the digital divide (Neiburger, 2010). There is hope that one day e-readers and e-books will be affordable to all libraries, but currently this just is not the case.

Those libraries that can afford to purchase e-readers may find application software, licensing and digital rights management problematic. According to Jason Griffey (2010), head of Library Information Technology at the University of Tennessee, “It is very likely that if you change your reader platforms in the near future, you may not be able to take your books with you.” CEOs from the largest library e-book supply company, Overdrive, are attempting to persuade e-reader manufacturers to create an e-reader device specifically for libraries, but no such device is currently in development (Potash, 2010).

Another problem libraries are encountering related to e-books is that some users are not ready to embrace technology, and they may never be. The transition to e-books will be irritating to some people as they watch their favorite class of books fade from the print market (Meadow, 1995), and a recent informal online survey showed that many people do not want to believe that print books may become obsolete:

The graph illustrates that when 150 participants were asked if they thought that books would become obsolete, 11 stated "Yes," and five people anwered, "Probably," while 60 said "I hope not," and 74 declared, "No."

Regardless of this optimistic public viewpoint, the threat remains that e-books may one day replace printed books; librarians should prepare for this possibility. According to Eli Neiburger, Associate Director of IT and Production at the Ann Arbor District Library, “Libraries are screwed” unless they evolve and find ways to remain significant in the age of digitized books(2010). Once all books are available in digitized format, there will be no need to go to the library to access books. Librarians must serve another purpose if they want to keep their jobs. To remain relevant, Neiburger suggests libraries begin storing, organizing and displaying the content and creations of the local community (2010). Providing access to the latest and greatest technology may also ensure that libraries remain relevant to their communities; in this case, future librarians will need to possess advanced technological skills.

Change is inevitable.


From a small, sporadic beginning, e-books and e-readers have progressed and are now beginning to hold a significant presence in libraries. The digitization of books has left the future of libraries unclear. However, one thing does seem certain: public libraries and the role of librarians will need to evolve if they are going to continue to exist.

Are you ready?

(See previous post for References)
**Note: Photos are linked to original sources

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