Libraries may be doomed. The digital age will force these beloved community institutions to streamline, prioritize, and (ultimately) reinvent themselves. In fact, this transformation is already underway. Libraries (like mine) are incorporating digital assets into their collections. At the moment, I’ve got Born to Run, The Accidental Billionaires, and the A Game of Thrones quadrilogy queued up on my iPhone.
Now, this new service may not stem libraries’ long-term financial blood loss. But for patrons like me, library eBooks offer some great advantages. First (and foremost), they’re free. All you need to check out titles is a local library card. Second, they’re convenient. Lending periods are comparable to those of dead-tree books, and you can browse, check out, and download eBooks from the comfort of home. At last, you can visit your local library in just your underpants.
But there are some significant downsides to library eBooks, too. For one, transferring books onto your device is clunky. Here are the steps: visit the library website on my PC, download an authorization ticket, email said ticket to my iDevice, open it with my favorite reader app, download the book itself. In other words, the process is too complicated for the average bibliophile!
Other disadvantages are common to all eBooks, whether borrowed or purchased. For example, the hardware still isn’t ideal. On phones, the screen is too small. Get ready for a lot of swiping; because so little text fits on each tiny page, the average book easily balloons up to a thousand pages. Tablets fare better, but their resolution is so low that text can look jagged and fuzzy–not ideal for extended bookworm sessions. Such problems are exacerbated by poorly formatted eBooks (all too common). Often, you’ll lose precious screen real estate to weird spacing bugs, irremovable margins, and mal-adapted images.
A final disadvantage: eReading demands serious self-discipline. My phone is packed with apps–most of them far shiner (and less productive) than my eReader. Who can press through another paragraph, when faux Scrabble awaits? Why exegete another endless sentence, when Angry Birds requires no such concentration? Why strain to follow a chapter-long argument, when bite-size tweets are infinitely more digestible? By the time I finish with my other apps, any leisure time I had is long gone.
Still, despite the problems, publishing’s future lies with the eBook. Presumably, then, eBooks must figure prominently in libraries’ future, as well. Hopefully, they survive long enough to work out the kinks.