What are librarians for?

Seth Godin wrote an interesting piece about libraries recently, and it rang true with me. I’m reading more than ever, but I wouldn’t even bother asking a librarian what I should read next.

Public librarians today seem to act more like sentinels of dead-tree collections. They own the data, they tidy the shelves and care for the books but when they want a recommendation, they use goodreads.com or amazon like the rest of us. Knowledge is a handwave at the encyclopedias in the corner or the ancient pcs lined against the wall. As much as bookshops are suffering from their failed attempts to get into multimedia and from publishers not understanding how people buy books, their staff are still typically enthusiastic, informed book-lovers, able to make a recommendation professionally rather than only knowing the authors they’ve read.

This is a generalisation of course, but it is at least anecdotally true. My region’s library website is librarieswest.org.uk and despite knowing which books I get out, my wife gets and what we get for our son, it makes no recommendations. Just like its meatspace equivalent.

Reading eBooks

I’ve now read three books on my phone (you can see which ones here). I never thought it would be possible to read on a screen that wasn’t designed for this purpose; I was sure that you’d need a Kindle or Nook-type screen to be able to read in comfort and for long periods of time.

The girl with the dragon tattoo
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my Motorola Milestone

It turns out that when I have time to read it’s typically on the train or bus (OK, mostly waiting for the train or bus followed by a brief journey), and then a few hours at weekends. Reading on my phone is fine for these use cases and in fact normally more useful since I always know where my phone is, and it always knows where I left off from.

Some facts:

  • The screen has a resolution of 854×480
  • I read in white on black
  • I read using Aldiko (although I tried WordPlayer too)
  • I have used the built-in catalog browser for virtually all my downloads
  • I have experimented with using Calibre to convert PDFs into eBooks and for magazine subscriptions. This is all simple.

I am pretty much a convert. There are definitely some downsides to reading books on a screen – it’s hard to pass it on afterwards, for example, or to quickly show someone a particular bit of text (since on such a small screen they’d need to go back three pages to get the same amount of context you’d get on a printed page or a proper ebook reader).

But I am astonished by the price of ebooks. From the little I’ve looked around they seem to be at best a few pounds (or dollars) cheaper than the dead tree equivalent, and I was certainly expecting a massive discount. Let me make a trite example:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:  book, amazon.com: $5.50, ebook, amazon.com: $5.42

and that is only for the books that you can get in DRM-free format, of course. Unlike, say, books that are printed on paper, some books are only available in certain formats or available for certain readers. It’s like they looked at the mp3 sales business of 8 years ago and said “yep, that looks like a great business model to us!”.

The pricing rather makes a mockery of the value of a printed book – do publishers really want to be telling me that the physical thing I hold in my hand is worth far, far less than the license for the artwork on the cover? Even if it is, the devaluation in the item that this revelation causes means I’m likely to be more frugal with my book purchases, not less.

All in all, although I thought I’d miss the whole tactile sensation of paper books, I don’t. I do miss the covers and a row of spines in a bookcase, but it’s not as if I have rows of CDs still out in my house. They all got ripped and are now in my loft.

I fully expect that over the next year most of my casual book purchases, or book-reading at least, will get done on my phone. After that time I may buy a proper ebook reader, certainly the experience I’ve had so far has indicated I am going to be spending even more of my time looking at a screen in the future.