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Turning the page e-books

Turning the Page (E-books and their impact on libraries)
School Library Journal, November 2004.

The technology of “the book” has already seen a number of transitions in its long history: from clay to wax to papyrus to vellum to cloth to paper, stored as tablets or scrolls or folios or books, bound in horn or leather or cloth or paper. With each metamorphosis, the role of the librarian has changed – from scribe to guard to copyist to archivist to selector to teacher.

I, for one, am looking forward to the next iteration of “the book” when well-designed silicon replaces cellulose as the means for publishing. Our current paper books often rapidly disintegrate. They go out of print. They are expensive to produce, bulky to store, and back breaking to move. Access to them is limited because of their very physical nature. While I am sentimental about the associative memories particular books evoke, it is really the excitement of the story, the perspective of the author, or the lyricism of the language to which I am reacting when I say, “I love books.”  

The impact of the wide-scale use of e-books will be a major who-moved-my-cheese event for our profession and it will happen within many of our working lives. What might a genuinely useful e-book look like and what ramifications might such a device might have on the profession of school librarian? For each prediction, I have footnoted a current product or event that foreshadows it.

The e-book of 2015 (1)
The digital book in its mature form will have many advantages over that of the now defunct Sony Bookman, cumbersome, expensive laptop, or handheld device with its tiny screen. It will be a new kind of book with which one can cuddle up in bed, take to the beach, or carry on a bicycle. From reports of developing technologies, one may safely conclude a true e-book:

  • Will be highly portable, durable, and customizable. Mine will be a slim padded six by nine inch notebook bound in calfskin weighing ounces, not pounds. (2) It will run on a watch battery that needs replacing once every three years, supplemented by a solar panel (3). It will have high-speed wireless connections to the Internet and peripheral devices, such as projectors, printers and earphones. (4) All its memory is static and the screen is made of strong, semi-flexible plastic. (5) A bump or drop may scuff, but not break the device. Special models for students needing adaptive technologies will be available.
  • Will offer a screen with higher resolution than the printed page. Open my e-book and the left hand side will show a softly glowing, backlit, glare free screen that can switch from landscape to portrait layout. (6) My wife can sleep while I read in bed. My page’s background would be a rich ivory color with the resolution of paper and be flicker-free. The text’s font can be changed to suit one’s personal taste and the size adjusted for aging eyes. A tap will bring up a dictionary definition and pronunciation for any word, and in many cases, an illustration. Automatic translation of texts in languages other than English is instantaneous. (7) The other side of the notebook will hold input and output devices of my choice - keyboard, track pad, stylus, speaker, microphone, and camera.
  • Will be fully multimedia. The page displays full color graphics, digital video and offers text to speech in a natural voice. (I’ll download James Earl Jones and Kathleen Turner to be my narrators.) Audio books with full dramatization and magazine and newspaper articles can be downloaded and listened to, as well as motion pictures, radio programs, and television programs. (8)
  • Will allow annotation, searching, and bookmarking of e-texts. One can doodle in the margins with a stylus on the touch sensitive screen or via the keyboard on electronic sticky notes. The user can search the full text and notes and set referenced bookmarks.
  • •    Will have both internal and online storage space. Dozens of books plus all standard reference sources will be instantly accessible from the terabyte storage chip within the device. Lesser-used items will be accessible from online personal libraries, through worldwide public or private lending sources, or through online bookstores. E-texts and downloadable audio books will be less expensive than their physical cousins, reflecting cost saving realized by not having to print, transport, store, or remainder any item. One of my books happens to be a great Dorothy Dunnett novel, unavailable in paper for 10 years. E-books mean never having to say out of print.
  • Will change the nature of “fiction.” Many writers may experiment with text that is customizable by the end user for both artistic and commercial purposes. The reader may substitute the name of his or her current inamorata or inamorato for the protagonist (or murder victim). The latest Stephen King can be set to mild, scary or terrifying, or Harold Robbins to suggestive, lurid, or … well, let’s not go there. Video games and fiction may merge and the skills and choices of the reader/player may determine the outcome of the plot. (9)
  • Maybe integrated into a more fully functional “e-backpack.” This device will be a means of storing notes, papers, and teacher-generated study materials and customized e-textbooks; an e-portfolio documenting the exploration of a series of related topics, each assignment building on the last; an e-organizer with appointment calendar, to-do-list, and address book; an e-wallet that serves as a library card, lunch ticket, petty cash, and sports pass protected with biometric security; and an e-communicator capable of transmitting both voice and data, including digital video. The e-backpack will include interactive learning programs prescribed as part of every learner’s IEP and include basic productivity software such as a word processor, spreadsheet, web editor, database, video editor, and graphics tools.
  • Will be affordable. (10) The price of e-book hardware is a non-issue. The devices themselves will be no more expensive than school supplies in the past. Software distributors and e-text publishers practically give them away with subscription services. The funds schools once spent on textbooks and printing costs heavily subsidize the costs of this equipment for children whose families cannot afford it.
  • Will contain a monitoring chip. With the passage of the Patriot Act of 2009, all electronic communication devices used in schools will have a Mind Police chip that automatically sends logs to the school’s office of testing and assessment, the vice-principal’s office, and the Department of Homeland Security for data-mining. Of course, all students have discovered how to disable the chips. (11)

The students of more well to do families are using newly available wearable e-books with a wristwatch type CPU, retinal laser displays, and virtual keyboards. That kid in the back row is probably twitchy because she’s paging through The Hobbit, solving a chemistry problem, or drawing her friend a valentine.

Implications for the role of the librarian.
The practical e-book will have a more profound and far more sudden effect on the role of than librarian than did the printing press. Just as printed books freed hand copied manuscripts from the chains that held them to a library’s tables, so will e-books free the content of books from any particular physical space. How might our spaces, tools and jobs change as a result?

1.    The physical library. Schools will be made of bricks and mortar for as long as they are expected to provide not just educational, but custodial services by the public. While home schooling and virtual schooling are growing, both serve a small fraction of the total PK-12 population. Most families will expect schools to contain and shelter their children as well as educate them. But will the library itself remain a physical entity when all the resources of today’s library and more are accessible via an affordable, practical e-book?

The library should house the infrastructure technologies needed to insure that e-books connect to each other and the rest of the world. It is also the logical place to house the technical staff where one of our tasks will be help them prioritize their tasks and possibly supervise. A production lab containing computers with massive processing power used to do high-end image and video processing and number crunching will be a part of tomorrow’s media center.

The library will remain a physical learning space if we begin creating facilities and environments where kids and teachers want to be. The library must have comfortable chairs, a pleasant ambiance, and a friendly, low-stress, safe, and forgiving atmosphere. (12) It must contain flexible spaces that can be used by individuals, small groups, and whole classes. Physical books that still have value but are not yet digitized, may still be present, but will eventually be sent to historical society or university archives where they can be better preserved. Security systems will be a thing of the past since there will be no “books” to steal.

Collaborative learning and the need for social interaction will require our libraries are places of active learning. While the e-book will make virtual communication readily available, providing a place for face-to-face interaction is role the library can fill. I personally hope that storytelling, puppetry, live debates and demonstrations will be part of every child’s education. And while most of a child’s education will be highly individualized to meet specific learning goals and styles, interpersonal and collaborative skills will also be a part of the curriculum.

As librarians, we will need to compete for patrons using our space. Since we are no longer the only game in town for information, it will be our skills, especially our interpersonal skills, to which patrons will be drawn. The librarian needs to be a good reason to go to the library rather than to avoid the library if we are to exist. (13)

If the library is not a wonderful place to be to learn, to socialize and to relax, students and teachers will use their e-books in places that are.

2.    Resources. The librarian, of course, will be selecting commercial digital materials to be made available to students and to staff. While it may mean continuing to purchase some single titles of resources, it will more likely be the librarian’s job to purchase access to collections of digital materials. (14) These collections will need to complement and supplement state-provided resources (15), the commercial Internet, and materials that come standard (dictionaries, thesauri, atlases, etc.) on e-books designed for school use. And of course, it will be librarian’s job to budget for, acquire, and track the licenses needed to use these products.

Materials will need to be even more carefully chosen to support the curriculum and specific instructional needs of teachers. With so much information available, maintaining a highly useable library webpage tailored specifically to meet the needs of the individual school’s curriculum will be a primary job of the librarian.

The librarian’s expertise, available online and accessible through e-books, may be the single most valuable “resource” the library will offer.  The questions will be difficult and we will need to not only have expertise ourselves in locating specific materials, resources and information, but be able to use expert systems that rely on artificial intelligence as well. (16)

3.    Jobs. Teachers and administrators must come to us for help with problems only we can solve. As printed textbooks become obsolete, librarians will use the experiences and skills learned creating pages of selected web sites and webquests to assist teachers in building individualized (to the student) e-textbooks accessed and read on e-books. We will still need to be experts in children’s and young adult materials – regardless of their format – to meet the needs of both the struggling and advanced learners. And we will continue to provide staff development opportunities in information technologies.

Classroom teachers will continue to send kids to the library only if the librarian is better at helping them find information or complete a task than the teacher himself. We also need to have responsibility for teaching an identified set of skills, virtually and in person, which no one can teach better. (Might the very best teacher-librarians free-lance to schools willing to pay for their teaching talents?)

Information-literacy skills will be more important to student’s future success than ever. Because of the growing glut of information, we will to increasingly focus on helping students:
•    Define their information-related problems and questions.
•    Search ever-larger amounts of available information.
•    Carefully determine the reliability of information sources.
•    Interpret, organize and analyze information.
•    Construct powerful means of communicating their findings, especially using technology
•    Evaluate and reflect on the effectiveness of both their products and efficiency of the process.
•    Make safe and ethical decisions while online. (17)

In the end, it may well come down to our knowledge of individual children, their special needs and the personal relationships with form with them that will be viewed as indispensable by parents, and therefore by administrators. In Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age a youthful heroine is assisted through a very rough childhood by an e-book-like device titled A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This wonderful tool is a library and self-paced tutorial that offers her just the right skill, bit of information, or advice when needed. Although she didn’t know it, her primer’s power and usefulness were because the lessons were planned and monitored by a caring human mentor. The best schools will be the ones that provide the most human teaching; the poorer schools will increasingly rely on the economical technologies. (18)

And finally, we need to remain our schools’ intellectual freedom-fighters - continuing our battles against the censorship of digital resources, advocating for patron privacy, and helping enforce copyright. We will need to have the expertise to advise students on the safe and ethical use of all information technologies. We will need to continue to be not just the brains of the school, but its soul as well.

In my darkest dystopian fantasies technology directors do the selection of not just library materials, but entire library programs. (19) If a commercial LIBRARIES-R-US can provide the resources and services virtually and cheaply, what will keep a school from outsourcing? It’s a question those of us who want to continue working in the public sector need to answer soon.

There will not be a guaranteed place for librarians in tomorrow’s schools. Our profession will once again need to build and define its own role as the needs of our patrons and schools change, as our technologies mature, and as the definition of education itself is transformed. But we’ve done it before and we will do so again, if we look upon the change as opportunity and with the excitement and optimism I have about getting my first real e-book.


  1. In his book, In the Age of the Spiritual Machine ( ), author Ray Kurzweil makes a compelling argument that Moore’s Law – that computing power will double every 18 months - will not only continue but accelerate exponentially well into the foreseeable future. Nearly all the functionality of my desired e-book is now commercially available, but at a high price.
  2. Fully functional notebook computers can now be found that weigh less than 3 pounds.
  3. Calculators have used this technology for some years.
  4. Both Wi-Fi (802.11) and Bluetooth are rapidly becoming standard on most portable computing devices.
  5. Brainium’s W-Book laptop (now defunct) used only static memory, but all handheld computers do. Floppy disks are rapidly being replaced by thumb drives as a means of transporting computer files physically. One company developing a “digital paper is PARC Research  <www.parc.com/research/dhl/projects/paperdisplays/>.
  6. Many tablet computers already have this feature.
  7. Google <google.com> now translates webpages into over 100 languages, including Elmer Fudd.
  8. Download best sellers into your iPod today at audible.com <audible.com>.
  9. Today’s most highly rated video games are plot-driven. Metal Gear Solid: the Twin Snakes is an example, according to my gamer son.
  10. Think graphic calculator prices and cell phones give-a-ways. MIT Media Lab is designing a $100 laptop to be used by children in developing countries. See: <http://laptop.media.mit.edu/>
  11. Computer use logs and e-mail monitoring systems, such as Symantec’s Mail-Gear are common in schools.
  12. Bookstores, public libraries and some high school libraries are adding coffee shops and paying great attention to the décor and comfort of their spaces.
  13. A frightful quote was given in the Pew study “Digital Disconnect” by a middle school student: “The Internet is like a librarian without the bad attitude or breath.” “The Digital Disconnect: The widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their schools.” 8/14/2002 <www.pewinternet.org>
  14. Currently, libraries select full-text periodical databases comprised of dozens of titles, rather than individual periodical titles. Streaming video services like DigitalCurriculum <www.digitalcurriculum.com> offer collections of educational titles. E-texts, while available for individual purchase (at eBooks.com for example), are as likely to be offered as ready-built collection such as Questia <questia.com> and the International Children’s Digital Library <www.icdlbooks.org>.
  15. Minnesota’s ELM project <www.elm4you.org> is an example of a state-wide purchase of electronic resources. ELM includes netLibrary’s collection of 13,000+ ebooks.
  16. I am fascinated by the primitive “consumer advisory” services now provided by services such as Amazon <amazon.com> and NetFlix <netflix.com> that use past acquisition patterns to recommend other materials one is likely to like. The University of Minnesota’s Assignment Calculator <www.lib.umn.edu/help/calculator/> provides a personal research tutorial service by asking students questions related to a specific assignment.
  17. The Big6 <big6.com> information literacy process is widely used and its adoption is growing. All but two states have adopted information and technology literacy standards.
  18. This was predicted as early as the mid 1980’s.
  19. The James J. Hill is the de facto library for scores of small and midsize businesses, offering a range of fee-based services. Several popular search engines currently offer fee-based searching. Nexus/Lexis and other legal databases have decimated most law firm libraries. Schools are outsourcing school lunch programs, technology services, and transportation. Are libraries next?

More about e-wallets, CNN August 09.


Posted on Monday, July 2, 2007 at 08:00AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

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