Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Garments of Light - The Kindle and it's possible role in libraries

I am of the opinion that when a suitable kind of e-reader comes along, it will be adopted by the public at large in a steady and quick fashion. This is sometimes referred to as my "Garments of Light" theory because I suggested that instead of losing books to the electronic format, which is how most people think of it, that more books will be immortalized, clothed in garments of light and remembered forever by humanity.

I think the qualities you need for an e-reader to become succesful are A) a readable interface and B) a good selection of books.

About a year ago, Sony released an e reader that, from all reports, had a readable interface called e-paper. However, ebooks at that time were running as much as a hard bound copy. Selling ebooks for those kind of prices will create a shortage. I don't think many people will pay as much for an ebook as for a hardcopy, for the simple reason that a book printed on electrons can't have the kind of overhead that a book printed on paper does. They look too expensive for what they are.

Yesterday, Amazon released the Kindle, which is a reader. It looks like it uses the same e-paper technology. In addition, they are selling best sellers or 11 bucks, and other titles for even less. They have 88,000 titles. From casual browsing, it looks like I've read a lot of the stuff that I'd be interested in. I'm sure that won't be the case a year from now.

To be fair, I haven't seen a kindle. I don't know if it's any good as a device. I hope to rectify that, but we'll see. A lot of people will tell you why the Kindle sucks, reasons ranging from Digital Rights Management to "it doesn't feel like a book."

What I'm interested in is brainstorming ways to use it in a library. So I've been talking to some of my co-workers, and this is what we've come up with.

First of all, I'll begin my saying that I wouldn't buy a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns just to circulate on an e-book. Paying $10 to put a best seller on a $400 reader makes it a $410 hardcover. No thanks, I'll just buy another copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns, in hardcover, for $15.

The purest joy of owning a Kindle would be in carrying 200 of your favorite or most anticipated books around with you all the time. So, like iPods, I don't see a great deal of utility in circulating one title on one for four weeks.

The Kindle will in no way serve my patrons needs to get a copy of a book into their hands quicker, unless e-copies of out of print titles become negligibly cheap through some kind of micropayment screen. The Kindle is not a collection development tool.

That said, after a few minutes of thinking about it, one of my staff and I had three ideas.

The most obvious is that However, it could be a very useful to vacationers. Wouldn't it be great to circulate the entire list of best sellers for two weeks?

My staff suggested that you could cirulate whole collections to senior living centers, and they could be passed around. The Kinle would need to have a large print setting for this to be the case, however.

I also thought that if you had a large number of titles in various lanuages, each could serve as a portable world languages collection. My community has small but highly educated populations who speak Hindi, Chinese, and of course we have some Spanish. I am at a loss as to how to build collections for such diverse but small communities.

How about putting two hundred inexpensive books in Hindi on one reader, 200 in Chinese on another, and 200 in Spanish on two? We circ them for one or two months. If there is no reserve, we can circ them for another one or two months?

The teen librarians suggested they would be great for classes.

So the Kindle, in library terms, could be a distribution device. It is good for many people with limited or localized demand. Let me throw out some other ideas:

You could sponsor a Kindle with a collection of books on it for a local retirement community, as sort of a mini electric branch.

Rural libraries could circulate several titles at once to patrons who didn't get to them very often.

You could keep your whole reference collection on one to half a dozen, depending on the size of your library. For that to be really functional, there would have to be some function for taking snippets of reference books and making them portable to other devices.

They would be great for barbershop, doctor, or other waiting rooms.

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