One question I often get these days with regard to books is, “Isn’t it all online?” I’ll usually respond with, “Well, we’re not quite at that stage yet.” When someone asks “Isn’t everything online?”, “everything” includes:
1. The newest copyright protected titles to older public domain titles and everything in between.
2. Popular titles and obscure titles: If it’s very popular, publishers get protective about selling to libraries. Up to 30 percent of new titles are not available to libraries in digital form. However, if it’s not popular and still protected by copyright there isn’t much push to digitize it, and often it’s not legal to digitize.
3. Many books that are published digitally are available for sale only to individuals. Some new titles are only available to libraries for purchase at three to four times the amount charged to individuals. One recent title, “Unbroken,” cost $84 a copy for library purchase, compared to $12.99 for individual purchase.
4. Digitized and not yet digitized: new books have publishers to make them available digitally — for sale. Old books in public domain have Google/HathiTrust able to digitize them for entities like Project Gutenberg. Books that are not new but are still copyright-protected are often unavailable. While Google might digitize them and want to provide them for free, the copyright holders are not eager for that to happen, and have been bringing lawsuits.
However, perhaps the most important questions to ask about digital books are:
1. Are all ebooks free to everyone, or are they available to people who can afford to buy them?
2. Are all titles — including less popular titles — even available in digital format? If those entities currently interested in digitizing books become more interested in selling ebooks than in the public service of digitizing “everything,” will less popular, perhaps controversial titles be passed over and end up unavailable digitally?
In a June 2013 survey of upper school students, when asked about school projects, 52 percent preferred to read from paper texts, while only eight percent preferred digital sources.
When asked about recreational reading, 73 percent said they preferred to read on paper, while only two percent would rather read digitally.
Often these preferences shift with the circumstance. Travelling? Your Kindle or Nook lightens your load. Catching up on classroom reading? Grab your paperback edition of “The Great Gatsby” and get ready to highlight away.
As long as you have the option for either, you still have a choice.
While it is exciting to think of the expanded availability that digitization brings to many books, it is important to look more deeply to see the hidden impact.