print is dead, long live print

I’ve been thinking about ebooks.

I love ebooks. I love them on my iPad more than I love anything else on the iPad. Always having a book in my pocket? Brilliant. Best thing ever. Having a hundred books in my pocket? EVEN BETTER. I’m an avid re-reader of genre fiction, so having my library on my device is spectacular.

But I’m a smart, well-educated information professional.

And I’m luckier than hell to have access to an iPad.

And I’m savvy enough to use online storefronts, free ebook sites, and a passel of software and apps so I can read what I want, when I want, how I want.

And I can afford to buy solutions to my problems when I have them.

And I know that I’m not The Average American.

Here’s something worth thinking about, from author Seanan McGuire. In “Across the Digital Divide“, she writes,

It is sometimes difficult for me to truly articulate my reaction to people saying that print is dead. I don’t want to be labeled a luddite, or anti-ebook; I love my computer, I love my smartphone, and I love the fact that I have the internet in my pocket. The existence of ebooks means that people who can’t store physical books can have more to read. It means that hard-to-find and out of print material is becoming accessible again. I means that people who have arthritis, or weak wrists, or other physical disabilities that make reading physical books difficult, can read again, without worrying about physical pain. I love that ebooks exist.

This doesn’t change the part where, every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to “Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier,” what I hear, however unintentionally, is “Poor people don’t deserve to read.”

I don’t think this is malicious, and I don’t think it’s something we’re doing on purpose. I just think it’s difficult for us, on this side of the digital divide, to remember that there are people standing on the other side of what can seem like an impassable gorge, wondering if they’re going to be left behind. Right now, more than 20% of Americans do not have access to the internet. In case that seems like a low number, consider this: That’s one person in five. One person in five doesn’t have access to the internet. Of those who do have access, many have it via shared computers, or via public places like libraries, which allow public use of their machines. Not all of these people are living below the poverty line; some have voluntarily simplified their lives, and don’t see the need to add internet into the mix. But those people are not likely to be the majority.

Now. How many of these people do you think have access to an ebook reader?

When I raised these questions with two classes of first-year honors students this week, they were baffled and annoyed by the idea that print books might someday go away — “I can’t afford to buy the big paperbacks” and “the library’s the only place you can get enough books to really read” both came out of their mouths — and horrified by the idea that people might someday have to overcome the technology entry barrier of buying an ereader in order to read a book. To combat and mitigate those concerns, my coworkers and I struggle with finding cost-effective and impact-heavy ways to introduce our users to expensive new technologies, if only so they can see, touch, and try the things they can’t afford to own. We’re not alone. Libraries all over are struggling to provide the richness of reading experience in ebook form that we can and do provide with print, while the BookSmellers are alive and well, shouting from the rooftops that a Kindle will never smell the same as a real book. And so we buy lots of real books, we build tech petting zoos, we sign up with Overdrive, we launch summer reading programs and community book exchanges and hold classes on using gadgets and start lending Kindles… Librarians are trying to be all things to all people, knowing that the future is now, it’s just unevenly distributed, and wondering what the future will look like when we get there…

Because traditional publishing does seem to be in trouble.

And ebooks are damned cool.

And they’re undermining the public good of libraries at the same time that they’re enabling literacy and a love of words.

It’s a hell of a world we live in.


  1. Great post, Jenica! What people seem to forget is that the institution of the public library arose precisely out of a similar context in the 19th century, when what libraries that did exist were held by individuals or private entities. Those with money could always afford to buy books or a membership to a private library organization, just as many of us can now shell out for a Kindle or a monthly Netflix subscription. Public libraries are meant to bridge the information divide, be it analog, digital, or whatever comes next.

    Then again, there was also a time when providing free information to those who could otherwise not access it was considered a social good and not “socialism”…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s