Digital Books and the Impact on Libraries: An Overview of the Summer 2008 Issue of Library Trends


Library Trends Volume 57, issue 1 focuses on “Digital Books and the Impact on Libraries”. Issue Editor Peter Brantley, Executive Director for the Digital Library Federation (DLF), introduces the discussion by summarizing several cataclysmic developments in the library and publishing worlds that are forever changing the production, delivery and acquisition of books and other print materials: namely, the increasing centrality of Google and the resulting uncertainties over the disruption of the traditional relationships between authors publishers and libraries and the disruptive effects of ubiquitous internet technology on people’s everyday lives. Brantley asks whether there are alternatives to Google-shaped agreements for librarians and publishers and what economies would be necessary to sustain these alternative agreements.

Among the articles that follow this introduction, particularly interesting discussions include that of Jason Epstein’s “The End of the Gutenberg Era” (pages 8-16). Epstein, formerly the editorial director of Random House and founder of Anchor Books, foresees a continued place for most current versions of the physical book (though purely reference materials such as encyclopedias will go totally online) but emphasizes a change in the manner of its distribution. Increased digitization will cut back elements of the previous supply chain reducing costs of the physical inventory, packaging etc. and replacing this costly and elaborate setup with a “practically limitless digital inventory”, making it possible to “email an entire book with all necessary metadata as easily as a letter” (15). Epstein then discusses his involvement with “On Demand Books”, a company marketing an “Espresso Book Machine” which prints books on demand from online digital files. He foresees this print-on-demand technology being setup as a sort of “ATM for books” where readers could order a title at their computers (much as they currently do at and then collect the item at a nearby machine, perhaps located at a Kinko’s, Starbucks or local library or bookstore. For this setup to become widespread, there would need to be cooperation with publishers and other content providers; Epstein sees it as in the latter’s interest in cutting back on the current costly distribution infrastructure as well as in the chance to “exploit new technologies and markets” (16).

Other articles in this issue include Michael Jensen’s discussion of “Cultural Tenacity within Libraries and Publishers” (24-29). Picking up on Epstein’s point on the outmodedness of the older model of physical centralization, Jensen, director of strategic web communications for the Office of Communications of the National Academies and National Academies Press, sees a need for both librarians and publishers to fundamentally rethink their existing “cultures” and to pay more “attention to the personal – the customer, the citizen, the individual.” Concretely, that might involve – among other things – that publishers and librarians collaborate more closely with each other and with readers on things such as social tagging and possibly even create something like a “Scholarlicious” system for academic books.

Laura Dawson, an independent consultant to publishers and other service providers in the book industry, in “The Role of Self-Publishing in Libraries” (43-51) argues for the need for librarians to take self-publishing more seriously, while Sara Lloyd, head of digital publishing for Pan MacMillan, presents “A Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the Twenty-first Century: How Traditional Publishers Can Position Themselves in the Changing Media Flows of a Networked Era” (30-42). Reiterating several of Epstein and Jensen’s earlier points, Lloyd sees a new role for publishers in emphasizing content over distribution. Books are no longer a “definable product within covers” (32) and readers should be envisioned as “prosumers”, i.e. both producers AND consumers. The book is not simply a “unit or a product” to be read online nor is digitization simply a matter of digitizing “existing print texts” (32). Rather, publishers should seek to provide tools for reader interaction and communication. “Search” is now more important than simple “download” (37).

Other articles in this issue contain more technical discussions of digitization processes but also offer many useful insights for professional librarians. As a journal, Library Trends is always worth reading for its provocative analyses of current issues (and occasional controversies) in the areas of information acquisition and management.
___________________________________________ *We are fortunate that Steven Essig has agreed to write the above article. Steven is our Professional Librarian Intern for Reference and Research. He received his Masters of Library Science degree from St. Johns University in 2007 and his MA, Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences from The University of Chicago in 1996.

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