Books and E-Books: As Different as Night and Day: Conversations about E-Books Tend to Focus on Their Format, but the Emphasis Should Be on Whether Changing a Book's Format Also Changes Its Purpose

Article excerpt

The transition to e-books is happening so fast, and there are so many issues to address, that it seems like the e-book juggernaut is moving along like a train with no brakes. I thought it might be useful to share my ideas on what we need to think about with respect to e-books and how we and our users and organizations will need to change our understanding of the very concept of a book.

I think that the issues facing special librarians fall into a few big buckets:

1. What is an e-book? Are they all that different from printed books?

2. What are the emerging e-book standards? Is there ever going to be just one?

3. What are the legal (and other) issues?

4. What's in the pipeline for e-books and devices?

5. What's the impact on special libraries and our users?

I hope to address these issues in my next few columns. For starters, let's think about e-books in general.

What is an e-Book?

I have always been very uncomfortable with how we talk about e-books in the academic and special library communities (and in the consumer market as well). I think we need a better language to describe e-books so we can discuss them in the context of libraries, work and research. So, what is the taxonomy of e-books?

I propose that the overall umbrella term be "e-resources." E-resources include a bunch of resources that libraries (and intranets) have come to know and love--databases, Web sites, articles, audio and video streaming media, and more. All of these contribute to 21st century business, research and academic environments. It's a fairly safe bet that there will be a lot more e-resources activity in the future.

E-books are a distinct subset of e-resources. Of course, they're also a format of books in general, just like other subtypes of books--textbooks, encyclopedias, novels, audio books, talking books, large-print editions, translations, Braille editions, and so on.

One of the dysfunctions in our conversations about e-books is that we often question whether the transmogrification of a printed book into an e-book does more than just change the format. I believe that this change is as amazing as that which happens in a pupa when a caterpillar mutates into a butterfly. The bigger question is, when we make books electronic, does their major intent change for better or worse?

To understand this change more deeply, it would be wise to consider e-books as more than printed books and reconsider how the various types of books came to be and why they exist. After all, in order to become books in the first place, some compromises had to be made, and these compromises may be overcome--or, perhaps, made worse--in the movement to an electronic format. Indeed, those of us who have studied the history of the book and have seen ancient scrolls and illuminated manuscripts know that parts of the book experience have been lost over time, even in print. So, let's consider the major divisions of book types and see what the process of transforming them into e-books does to them and whether it creates opportunities for us in the library, research and educational contexts.

Fiction versus Non-fiction

I'll start with fiction, because that seems to be where all of the consumer action is taking place, which is dampening a real evaluation of e-book formats in professional and special library environments. Few special libraries depend on fiction for their stock in trade--we are largely purveyors of non-fiction resources.

Fiction is written to be read (indeed, experienced in our imaginations) in the exact order in which it is written and from beginning to end. That may seem obvious, but very few other book types are written for the reader to engage the entire book and use his or her imagination to experience the book's story.

Fiction comes in many genres--literature, children's stories, mysteries, romance novels, graphic novels, comics, plays, etc. …