Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Library Is Dead. Long Live The Library!

The Richmond Public Library has e-books! I downloaded Steven Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought" last night, and it's mine for 14 days. At the end of the 14 days, I don't have to do anything. It just stops working on my Android tablet and the next person in the queue gets it. But no worries, because I'm in the queue for Murikami's "1Q84," Whiteheads "Zone One," and Ondaatje's "The Cat's Table."

Now, I fully intend to read every word in all four of these books. But there's a nanochance that I'll abandon one after 100 pages or so. Okay, maybe two. Certainly no more than three. And if I try and fail, at least the books were free. 

First the how-to. Then I'll wax philosophical.

  • You need your library card number. It's on the back of the card.
  • Most of the books are in Adobe EPUB format. so you'll need to create an Adobe account. It's free.
  • Install the "OverDrive Media Center" app on your tablet or smartphone.
  • Open the OverDrive app. Select the "Get Books" menu item. Use "Add a Library" to add "Richmond Public Library" to your "Get Books" page.
  • Tap "Richmond Public Library." Your browser will open at the library's e-book page. Here's where you'll need your library card number to log in.
  • Browse. Find a book you want. Tap "Download."
  • You'll pop back into the OverDrive app. For your first download, it prompts for your Adobe credentials. Then it it downloads the book. You're golden.

Most of this is first-time setup. Once it's done, you've got a process that fixes the main problems of a bricks-and-mortar library:

  • You no longer have to go to the library to get books.
  • You no longer have to go there to return books.
  • You no longer have to read books that other people have touched. You don't have to put up with their marginalia and coffee stains.

So, what's the downside? The death of branch libraries, probably. They'll go the way of book and record stores. Main libraries will endure, for archives and scholarship and prestige. But cities with budget troubles have long tried to cut branch hours. In ten years or so, when the only "library" most middle-class residents care about is on a server somewhere, it will be politically easy to close the physical branches and lay off staff. Big budget savings. Of course, the less affluent, who may not have e-readers, and who depend on branch library computers as a narrow bridge across the digital divide, will get screwed.

I also wonder what this will do to the companies that sell e-books, even mighty Amazon. Why buy when you can rent for free? Ironically, Amazon may be hastening its own problems by rolling out the Android-based Kindle Fire. The Fire may change the consumer tablet market - it's a lot cheaper than an iPad. But, unless Amazon does something evil with the software, a lot of Fire owners may decide to get free e-books from their local libraries instead of paying Amazon. The new Kindle Lending Library program somewhat targets this, but even $79 a year is a lot more than free.

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