imageAn old elementary school classmate vanished from sight or at least mine. He was seriously rumored to be working for a local employer known as Central Intelligence Agency. X’s father was a diplomat, often the cover job for CIA spies.

So a few decades later, I eagerly downloaded My Father the Spy from the Washington, D.C., public library, along with eight other promising titles in digital format. Author John H. Richardson‘s father had in fact spent part of his career passing himself off as a Foreign Service officer. Makes you wonder about my elementary school friend. If X’s father had spied, did my friend have to lie to keep up the cover story? And if X ended up himself at the CIA—I emphasize the ifs in both cases—was the family connection the main reason? I won’t make pro- or anti-CIA arguments here; I’m just telling why this book meant something to me.

The real story here: E-books, not the CIA

imageIn fact, the real story here isn’t the CIA, but the glories of e-books for old and young alike, and what made my nine-title binge possible. Two of S.R. Ranganathan‘s Five Laws of Library Science are that "every reader" has his or her book and "every book" has its reader. Thanks to the Net and e-book technology, I could connect with a title that was just right for me as I was browsing through the D.C. system’s collection of biographies in electronic format.

"Right book" is at the core of the evolving TeleRead vision discussed in an earlier form in chapter 19 of Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier, an MIT Press/ASIS information science collection. I’m arguing for well-stocked national digital library systems in the States and elsewhere, tightly integrated with local schools and libraries. The issue of "right" is crucial in persuading young, e-distracted people to read books.

The youth literacy angle

image In a somewhat related vein, the New York Times yesterday ran a picture of a family in Ohio. The parents were reading off paper; the kids, off laptops. Motoko Rich‘s accompanying story told how many young people favor Web sites over books. The headline was apt: Literary debate: Online, R U really reading? Maybe the right books in e-format would help. Of course, as Wikipedia shows, books can be Web sites and vice versa. Still, that’s no substitute for professional editing and for linear narratives, which can help students learn to make sense of the world.

I love blogs and general Web surfing, and of course the real cosmos is chaotic, but to be able to puzzle out the chaos, it helps to read the past attempts of others. That is what well-wrought narratives can do, with benefits in both school and the workplace, whether the latter is an insurance company or, to use old Washington slang, The Company. Or maybe even the Oval Office?

So often causality is the child of chronology. Could this be why a Detroit study mentioned in the Times found a strong link between novel reading and good grades in English and overall. Might novel reading develop at least some kinds of chronologically related analytical skills, not to mention those related to empathy? What’s more, if a study by the National Endowment for the Arts is on target, readers also turn out to be more active as volunteers—better citizens. This is the same study, by the way, that showed that "Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers" and that "the percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period." Does this mean that the reading gene is fading away? Or could there have been a major, harmful shift in culture? And to what extent should society compensate through well-stocked online libraries of free books?

A TeleRead angle: Why books online aren’t enough to whet kids’ interest in books

But will most young people read just because the right books for them are online, at no costs?

Just a minority of young students, many from the elite, will take to books on their own. For more to do so, we need teachers and librarians—skillful enough to ascertain the students’ needs and interests, start them out with the right books, then show how to find them for themselves. And I don’t just mean technical skills, but rather the ability to distinguish good books from dreck. That is why I’ve suggested that TeleRead consist not just of online content and hardware assistance but also (1) appropriate courses for educators and librarians to master online research, and (2) suitable preparation for students as well, and (3) the integration of the TeleRead system with school curricula in ways that meet local needs and also foster analytical skills. Quite correctly, the Times article made the point that many students can find but not digest information. A full-scale TeleRead program—starting small but eventually scaling up to the tens of billions, just a fraction of the cost of the Iraq war—would be one way to change that.

My nine-book binge and the ease-of-use factor: Some progress by Sony and Adobe

image Of course, it helps if technology is easy enough for young people to use, whether they are downloading from schools, libraries, retailers or public domain archives. As an e-reader, the current One Laptop Per Child laptop in lacking in software and other ways. There should be a big, fat library icon in the middle of the screen of the XO-1, or the forthcoming XO-2, as soon as it boots up. I’d also like to see an easy, child-fit version of FBReader or equivalent featured in the middle of the screen; the OLPC should worry less about turning children into hackers and more about their becoming readers. Perhaps in some cases, not all, if a child is easily distracted by instant messages, e-mail and the like, it would even be worth experimenting with a bookcentric hardware such as the Kindle or the Sony Reader—especially if the hassles of the technology can be reduced.

In the fewer-hassles department, Sony and Adobe have just offered a little hope, via a software update that made my book binge possible. The update also increased the Sony Reader’s value as a school-and-library machine to augment laptops and desktops (even though my real love is for multiuse devices allowing interactivity).

image 1. Until last week, PDF books from public libraries were more or less useless to me since I hate reading entire books on a desktop—but the display on my Sony Reader is much better now. Adobe introduced reflowable PDF on the Reader via a software update. No, nirvana isn’t here. I want ePub format, not PDF, which shows up haphazardly on the Reader, with missing pages and even some broken words. What’s more, I’d rather that schools and libraries not have to invest heavily in proprietary formats. But the new update is definite progress. Far more easily, I can read the books in the bigger font that the reflowability feature allows—without all the hassles I’d otherwise suffer. (Now if only Sony will allow bolding of text, just as the Cybook does with its embolden command! People with vision problems—young or old—could benefit.)

2. Even more importantly, I can now read DRMed PDF on my Sony Reader; otherwise I could not read recent titles from large publishers on the Reader. I hope that libraries can eventually back off from DRM, which turns a nonproprietary format like ePub into a proprietary one. But I’ll enjoy the here and now, while still urging vendors and public libraries to consider DRM alternatives. OverDrive, that means you. I’ve sent you a list of questions to ascertain your commitment to ePub and openness to nonDRM possibilities. I’m not saying, Cast off all DRM immediately. Business arrangements have to be honored. But let’s look ahead. DRM is one of the biggest obstacles to easy use of library e-books by students and others. I’ve been writing about e-books for years, and yet I still find that library DRM systems can be nightmares. DRM  has often prevented me from effortlessly downloading the books that my tax money indirectly pays for (this is from a neighboring county with reciprocal borrowing privileges).  Libraries need to explore alternatives such as expirable onscreen browsing at password protected, on-the-fly Web addresses. Apple’s iPhone and the forthcoming Android phones will makes such an approach all the more useful and timely.

image 3. The public library in Washington, D.C., now has thousands of e-books, a bigger and better selection than the Fairfax County library system, which I had been using to download e-books. Jeff Scott, director of the City of Casta Grande li
in the Phoenix area, reminds other TeleBlog community members of the need to shop around (and, yes, Jeff, I’ll take you up on the kind offer of a Casta Grande library card so I can enjoy e-books from the Greater Phoenix Digital Library). What worked for me in Northern Virginia might work in other areas for readers of all ages. Don’t give up, dear readers, just because your public library, like mine here in Alexandria, is an e-book laggard. Would it be wonderful, however, if a TeleRead system assured the universal access to large numbers of library e-books without readers having to play these games?

Now back to the New York Times photo. What if someday the Times publishes another picture of a family reading—except that the young laptop users are enjoying e-books, not just Web sites, e-mail and IM? All have their place. But let’s not neglect digital books—or efforts to improve their usability through better technology and less reliance on complexity-adders like DRM.

Related: E-bestsellers and other goodies from your local library via OverDrive: Read them for free on the Sony PRS-505, by Jeff Scott.


  1. We encourage kids to pick up eBooks by offering various incentives on our site. Unfortunately, eBook retailers do not necessarily receive the support they need from the publishing industry. As of 5:20 p.m. Eastern Time July 29, Stephenie Meyer’s publisher advised the eBook industry that the eBook release of Breaking Dawn, her much-anticipated latest novel in the Twilight series, will be delayed a day until August 3rd.

    The hard copy release will still go forward August 2nd. This lag in release time has to do with concerns about eBooks getting to eBook customers in certain time zones before the hard copy book is available.

    We’re extremely concerned about the fact that publishers are treating eBook customers differently from paper book customers, and we encourage everyone to write to Hachette Book Group USA and let them know that eBook readers are a force to be reckoned with.

    Some articles about this:

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