Wichada Sukantarat of the UVM Library asked Alison Armstrong, Scott Scaheffer and me to put together a panel discussion for the library staff on eBook and eReaders. I was asked to talk about the technical issues, Alison about library service issues, and Scott about legal issues. In the course of the discussion we and the participants touched on so many of the issues that we are all grappling with as these rapidly changing devices appear.
As the discussion progressed I kept returning to one thought: ebooks are not electronic books. Why say that? A book is a physical object and cultural object with its own history, its own place in our culture, its own rules and assumptions and uses. The way we think about books and interact with them has developed and been shaped by 500 years of practice. When early ebook creators decided to replicate the print book as an ebook they may have thought it would be a simple transfiguration, or that the challenges would have been merely technical (how do you make it readable, how do you make the battery last, how do you create the structure of the text, what about color, etc.). You can see an example of this in the Kindle. If Amazon defines a book as something that people will buy, own, and read from cover to cover, that is quite a different model than a book as a digital object that can be shared, circulated, annotated, copied, broken apart and reconfigured, used in conjunction with other programs, etc.
Yet it has become clear that ebooks are not the sum total of books plus digital. They are their own object, and will generate their own expectations, assumptions, and practices. While pundits can make claims about what those are, the reality is that these devices are still in flux. At every step in the process assumptions determine the development of an ebook or ereader, then are challenged and must be addressed (both legally and technically), and then the results folded back in to the next development cycle. This certainly makes for a very practical challenge for libraries and universities: just when, and just how, should ebooks/ereaders be introduced?
Several universities and colleges are jumping in, buying ereaders and ebooks, and experimenting with their use in the library or classroom. Some have a plan, and for some the plan is to distribute devices to students and ‘see what happens.’ (Members of university centers for teaching and learning might suggest here that the latter is not always the approach best guaranteed to bring anticipated results!) It is heartening, however, to see that UVM is willing and able to ask the questions and have the conversation.