A bomb threat at Brooklyn College emptied the library building (photo), preventing me from delivering my talk on E as a bridge: How e-libraries and the right e-book devices could bring nations, socioeconomic classes and generations closer together.
The librarians loved the XO-1 I demoed at lunch, however, and I was especially tickled by the eagerness of a Pakistani librarian to introduce XOs to children in her city so they could enjoy picture books in E. Along with Wayan Volta of OLPC News, another invited speaker at BC, and Lisa Ellis, our peerless host, I’ll be rooting for her dream to come true. Josh Gay, a gifted young organizer from the Free Software Foundation who also has helped out at One Laptop per Child, was there, and while OLPC resources are stretched thin, I’m mightily hoping that OLPC volunteers can put up country-by-country lobbying tips for XO boosters at the grassroots level. Best of luck to Josh and colleagues on this front!
Few signs of E in NYC
But is the entire planet absolutely screaming for XOs and e-books? No nirvana yet. Educause has just published a provocative article headlined E-Books in Higher Education: Nearing the End of the Era of Hype?—complete with a question mark. I agree with the punctuation. We’re not out of Hype Land. E-books as a mass phenomenon have a way to go.
Both in New York and on Amtrak, I didn’t see a single soul with a Kindle or other dedicated e-book reader—maybe I’d have fared better in Business Class rather than Coach. Returned to the Washington, D.C., area, I did notice a young lady on the Metro subway intently staring at a cellphone screen and asked if by chance she might be reading E. No, she was just updating her contacts list. With cellphones so ubiquitous, you’d hope that NetLibrary and similar outfits would get the message if they want E to be more than a groan-inducer and laughingstock.
Groans over E
In that vein, a science librarian from Brooklyn College told me how much students hated to learn that books they needed were available only in E. Like me, they intensely dislike the prospect of having to consume e-books in front of a computer monitor—so often the case with services like NetLibrary. Remember, these kids grew up on computers. Here’s to the tablet / PDA / cellphone option, and a backoff from DRM, which, by helping to prop up the Tower of eBabel, makes it harder to enjoy E on cellphones and variety of other devices! As I keep pointing out, DRM is a toxin for both sales and literature—a point that Josh entertainingly and eloquently reinforced at the Brooklyn conference. Introduce E to students in the wrong way, and they’ll learn to hate e-books, just as so many at Brooklyn College are apparently doing.
The college librarian’s observations there were entirely consistent with some stats that the Educause piece reproduced from Ed Walton, acting dean of University Libraries at Southwest Baptist University:
Student and Faculty Preferences for P-books Versus E-Books
|College Students||Conduct Research||Textbook||Leisure Reading|
Notice? While optimists would note that 18.5 percent of the surveyed students preferred E for textbooks and 7.9 percent had no preference, that’s still a distinct minority despite the greater ease of searching for information within E. Furthermore, 80.1 percent favored p-books for recreational reading, 11.3 percent had no preference, 6.0 percent gave no response, and a mere 2.6 percent preferred E for recreational reading.
Of course, publishers of recreational books shouldn’t kiss off the 13.9 percent willing to do E, the total of the 11.3 and 2.6; and I’m also gratified that close to 38 percent of students favored E for research or had no preference. Still, the study offers one more clue as to why global e-book sales at the retail level are probably several hundred million at the most, compared to the tens of billions of annual sales of p-books.
Correctly, the Educause article noted that more recommendations of E from professors could drive student adoption of e-books. Still, E also could be much easier to use.
DRM vs. usability—and better business models
And the key to ease of use continues to be not just better gizmos but appropriate standards and an end to DRM. I fervently hope that the right business models can evolve to banish DRM even from libraries (reliant on expiration of access), and, of course, a TeleRead approach could expedite that while still compensating writers and publishers fairly. As one option, we need to think about measuring demand for individual books—with adequate fraud-proofing!—so that they can be disseminated widely without today’s hassles for users. See the possibilities here for well-stocked national digital library systems?
In a related vein, libraries need to consider the permanent checkout model, under which library users could keep at least some titles permanently. With social DRM in use—nope, that’s not traditional DRM, just putting owner-specific identifiers in books in plain English and perhaps in other ways—permanent checkout would be more practical an option. Josh hates the term “social DRM,” he doesn’t want anything positive associated with those initials, but he appeared very open to the concept itself. In fact, the Free Software Foundation likes the idea of watermarking, a close relative of social DRM, as an alternative. Here’s hoping that forward-looking publishers and policymakers will be listening if they truly want young people to learn to love E.