I don’t intend this piece to be a comparison because comparison means discussing two subjects over their benefits and drawbacks. But in this case, where the subjects are not distinctive but are somehow aligned or integrated with each other, it gets quite hard to decide. Being a blogger, you can imagine I can never ever sideline the digital mediums of accessing literature (or any other) content. The very blogging platforms we write on are digital in nature. But, I’ve also been intrigued by a fair share of books, which I’ve preferred to have with me in print, especially David Baldacci’s fantastic murder mysteries. Moreover, we all have spent more than a decade of the school surrounded by print books, so a soft corner for such a medium obviously exists.
But, since e-readers like Amazon Kindle and platforms like Google Books have gone global, they have waged an undeciding battle against the print media industry. Though these services are not new, Amazon’s Kindle gave rise to hundreds of more platforms and reading devices like itself, such as Scribd, Goodreads, Z-Library, etc. With the high-speed Internet reaching all corners of the world, it looks like the creation of e-books is taking over the old-fashioned libraries we all used to visit, along with extended services such as sharing of books and their conversion to different formats.
In this piece, I am trying to break down the impact e-books have made, and the change that impact has brought to the practices of learning and information access. We need to look at how emerging e-book readers and free alternatives to platforms like Kindle and Google Books are affecting the publishing business to understand and decode, which is better. Honestly, I am still divided over the e-books vs. print books debate, but let’s see whether this new reading trend is capable enough to bring down the hundreds of years old, cultural heritage of gaining knowledge via printed books.
The Growth of Public Libraries
If I am to talk about the entire history of libraries, then an article would be too short to discuss it. It all actually goes back ages to the Classical Period when libraries had books chained to the shelves and were perceived as more of a record room than a room of accessing knowledge. The emergence of Christianity and later Islam gave rise to such rooms for preserving manuscripts of sacred, religious knowledge.
It was only in the late 17th and early 18th centuries that libraries started to become more open. It began in Europe in a time dubbed as Age of Reason, where scholars started a movement to emphasize logic and reason over superstitions, thus enlightening a cultural and intellectual revolution. Research over hundreds of topics became prominent, and the consequent pieces of evidence of such research were accumulated and documented in the form of scrolls, books, manuscripts, etc.
Furthermore, the wars and conflicts in Europe led to the destruction of classical libraries. Books were looted as treasures with other possessions and were ultimately distributed across borders of different European territories. This distribution eventually led others to review it, and then add more perspective to the knowledge and information in them.
The Change in Role of Libraries
The modern public libraries did not come into greater prominence before the establishment of the Public Libraries Act, 1850, in Britain. The British legislature realized then concerns of the public and the inclination of the world towards the importance of learning morals and education. It passed the act, allowing the creation of free public libraries governed by taxes. Similarly, in America, after the economic significance of books and libraries was understood, public libraries were promoted, which led to the formation of the American Library Association in 1876. This paved a path for modern public libraries in America that were accessible by the general public for educational purposes as well.
Much later, in 1990, an ethical approach toward organizational theory was proposed. The organizational theory proposed that every organizational decision should have a monetary or capitalist agenda behind it. However, the new moral approach favored a public-oriented vision towards running a business.
It argued that an organization should work beyond its targets and think more than just profits. Applying these principles on the business of public libraries, more libraries, both public and subscription-based, were opened, thus laying down the foundation of modern libraries. These libraries were meant to impart knowledge and avail all sorts of data and information to everyone interested to learn.
E-Readers Come to Prominence
By the early 90s, public libraries were heavily modernized. States had tax-funded libraries with free access to all sorts of information and knowledge to the public. However, an inclination towards digitization also started to grow during this period. “American Memory,” a project of Library of Congress, is one of the most famous steps towards digitizing libraries. Under this project, the library took on 160 million copies of diverse content to make it available in the form of laserdisc and CDs.
By 1995, the Internet had gone global, and business organizations started to brainstorm over potential capitalization of the Internet. Online shopping came into existence with Jeff Bezos starting Amazon. At the time, Amazon sold books on a website at lower prices. This was the first attempt at making books available online in some form. In 1997, the electronic paper was developed, and the following year, the first commercial e-book called Rocket e-book was released. But, its abilities to store a large number of books and run for a longer time without additional battery charging or replacement were limited.
It wasn’t until 2004 that e-reader devices were popularized on a large scale. With the release of Sony’s Librie, e-readers’ reception among the general public started to grow. It was followed by another model called Sony Reader in 2006 and ultimately was pitted against Amazon’s 2007 release, Kindle.
Kindle gained massive popularity and was considered more credible and resourceful, given the long-term involvement of Amazon in the book business. The first slot was sold in five hours. By 2010, Apple launched iPads with its own book-reading and purchasing platform called iBooks. An entire industry of digital libraries was spawned. A lot of e-book readers are now available as apps on mobile phones across platforms.
Rise of E-book Readers
By 2011, e-book readers adopted a complete digital library business structure. In 2011, Amazon launched the Kindle library, which lent or sold digital books via download, just like the way printed ones are issued in libraries. In the next two years, that is by 2013, the growth of e-book readers and people preferring digital books increased rapidly. By the year 2013, the number of adults reading an e-book rose from 17% in 2011 to 28%. Moreover, since the rates of digital copies went down to 40% of the print version’s price, a sudden downfall in library visits was noticed.
Digitization of Libraries
The rise in the sales of e-readers and the increasing interest in e-book readers got libraries to adapt to the changes. Massive digitization of libraries began across the globe to allow users to access e-books within the libraries. While bigger public libraries had started to adhere to these changes long before, smaller and private subscription-based libraries began renovating themselves into more than a library or reading room. They began procuring digital versions of books from publishers and started lending them to the consumers. Audiobooks, movies, and music collections were added to certain libraries to give them an overall renovation.
This practice is still followed in all the major libraries. These libraries not just deal in selling, lending, and distribution of books, but also offer internet services over Wi-Fi, e-book lending, audiobooks, and DVDs. The digitization of major academic material, such as research papers and journals, has boosted up the number of visitors to libraries. As per reports from Statista, in 2015, the expenditure of libraries on electronic resources grew incredibly, especially in medium and low-tier locations. The share of budget allocated to electronic resources in libraries was found to be almost half the total materials budget, thus indicating the rapid inclination of readers towards digital e-books and other electronic versions of academic and other reading materials.
Rise in Free E-book Libraries and Reading Platforms
Amidst the growth of e-book readers, several projects focused on free access to reading material, both academic and non-academic, have risen. One such project is Open Library, a non-profit organization aiming at creating a “one webpage for every book ever published.” It completely runs on a donation-based revenue model and is entirely online. It was engineered by Aaron Swartz. A similar platform is Z Library, where you can access books for free. Though Z Library isn’t as organized as Open Library, the content available is vast.
In fact, several books available on Google Tools such as Google Books are available for free, either in part or as a whole. Google Scholar, on the other hand, is allowing access to thousands of research papers published by prominent journals without charging the readers. Besides these platforms, several free digital libraries are available on regional levels as well.
What Directed Public to Free Digital Libraries?
The major reason is the strained relationship between publishers and libraries. The e-book lending is harming the business of publishers, whose dominant profit area is the print book sales. To manage the increasing demand for e-books, libraries prefer to get access to them from outside services then the publishers directly. Rather than buying the e-books from publishers, they tend to lease them from third party sources, thus hampering the profit margins of publishers. This led to a major strain between many public libraries and publishers.
The publishers have not responded well to such a situation. Macmillan started a significant change in the supply of e-books to libraries. Macmillan Publishing announced last year that it will limit the number of e-books supplied to a library to just one. This means that the libraries won’t have e-books to lend and would resort to the physical copies in printed format. Macmillan would only supply more e-books when it has been atleast four months since the publishing of a particular book or edition.
This embargo is being adapted by many publishers while being opposed by significant library associations. While the publishers’ concerns lie in the profitability of their business, the associations want to maintain equality in opportunities to learn and gain knowledge and education. In such a scenario, support to online reading platforms with no barriers to access to e-books has risen. Projects like Open Library and platforms like Z Library are searched for quite frequently.
Where this new limitation on e-books would lead to and how it would affect the overall library business and the publishers as well is difficult to predict.
Are Free Digital Libraries Worth Learning From?
There are divided opinions over this. The first major concern free platforms pose is the lack of newness in the information and reading material they provide. Let’s take Z Library for an example. There are hundreds of books available for free on the platform, but it is challenging to find the newest editions in that unorganized pile. Plus, Z Library has a major shortage of academic material. Even Google Scholar does not offer the latest journals for free downloads. A platform like JSTOR is preferable over Google Scholar to access journals and research papers.
The other problem is the legality of downloading and accessing content from these platforms. The DRM reforms are quite frequently updated to help people protect their content, and you don’t know what material is allowed for free access. Open Library has itself been subpoenaed over violation of copyrights and other infringement practices.
Aaron Swartz, the lead engineer of the platform, was arrested for downloading JSTOR journals for free, which sparked a criminal investigation against him and ultimately resulted in Swartz’s suicide. A documentary called The Internet’s Own Boy, based on this part of his life, is available on YouTube.
Also, the credibility of such free digital libraries is questioned at some levels. However, the material that’s available on these sites is complete and without errors. So, it’s a matter of choice to access books via free libraries, and it’s up to the users if they wish to make them their first preference to access free information.
Current Situation of Modern Libraries and Publishers
During this strained period between libraries and publishers, publishers are gaining the upper hand. As per Statista, print book sales have significantly increased in the past few years. The print book sales for 2019 in the United States alone accounted for a business of $689 million. Though the figures were slightly less then what was accounted in 2018, the overall statistics show that the industry is surprisingly healthy in comparison to years 2011-2015, when e-books were at a steady rise.
Similarly, a decent rise in sales of print books was recorded in the year 2017-18 in the UK and regions of Europe and South Asia. While book sales income in the UK rose by 4% from the previous year, the figures found in the markets of Asia and Europe accounted for 13% and 8% growth respectively.
This indicates that people are luring back to print books. However, it cannot be said that Macmillan embargo is the only reason for the same. The growing concerns of environmental sustainability, conservation of electrical energy and other resources, and growing risks of social media addiction may be more primarily responsible for this shift.
Moreover, fiction novelists have changed their way of presenting a story. They have started using graphics and art in their books to give users’ imagination a slight visualization of their work. This may have led to increased interest and craving among readers to buy the original publishing rather than going for an electronic copy, which won’t be appealing as the print version.
Can Libraries Survive the Digital Revolution
I believe until libraries are bold and progressive enough to incorporate digital elements and adapt to technology in the future, no e-reader can take them out. Though publishers are refraining from offering electronic copies of books to libraries right now, they are well aware that patrons can only access their material from libraries. No e-reader manufacturer can get such a large collection of reading material to the public directly. They will always need libraries.
As I earlier said, libraries are not just offering books anymore. It’s more of a quiet reading room where learners can deviate themselves from outer world attractions and gain immense knowledge for both academic and non-academic purposes. E-books can hardly support as many resources as libraries can. Even if cloud services are used to avail books and other reading materials on e-readers, the excessive requirement of the Internet would add to the limitations. Plus, the way libraries are organized to offer all material with proper visibility over bookshelves is something that can’t be achieved in digital formats. It’s way easier to find reading material in libraries instead of e-readers.
Therefore, until libraries are continuing to evolve from a transactional model of selling and distributing books to a more relational approach of connecting people with the knowledge and information, their existence cannot be threatened.
Which is Better? E-books or Print Books?
This is a question that cannot be answered being one-sided. Both formats have their own advantages and disadvantages. The feel of paper, graphics illustrations, and flexibility in sharing and annotating books (a significant need in case of academic books) make print books a preference. On the contrary, portability, access to multiple books, easy digital bookmarking and text highlighting, and cost-effectiveness are some of the significant advantages of e-readers and e-books.
These factors make both e-books and print books better over the other. I have read plenty of novels, including The Sixth Man and Eleven Minutes, in print versions, and in my opinion, there is no comparison between what you feel on paper. On the other hand, I went through a few pages of A Game of Thrones in electronic format, and it was also a decent experience. In my case, cost-effectiveness was the reason to switch to an e-reader in the case of A Game of Thrones.
As a verdict, I think that a book in hand is more appealing; but again, it would always vary from person to person.
I say that it’s better to go for an electronic version of a book if it’s academic in nature. You access such content for knowledge purposes, and it hardly matters in what form it’s available. In fact, such materials are expensive and are better off in e-book versions. However, to connect to a story, fiction or non-fiction, a book written in that textured paper with proper illustrations would be more intriguing.
Regardless, libraries will thrive despite the digital revolution as they are the ones that bridge the gap between the patrons and the publishers. With modern technology being integrated into libraries along with ample space for reading and accessing the Internet for research, libraries are likely to survive this digital shift.
What’s Your Take:
Tell us what’s your take on libraries and e-readers. Do you think e-books are better than print books? And are platforms like Z Library credible enough to change the ways of accessing digital reading material? Hit the comments section, give us your opinions, and help everyone make a call – e-books or print books/ libraries or e-readers.