From Print to Digital- the Future of the Book

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” -Walter Benjamin

I work with digital collections and part of what I do at my job is digitize historical documents. As I handle these delicate materials, I see how they transform into a digital format, and I can’t help but wonder if something was lost in its translation. The quality of the digital image is wonderful, and yet very different from its physical form. Similarly, when looking at the difference between a book and a book on an e-reader, the relationship between the reader and the material also shifts. People have varying opinions on the rising popularity of e-books and digital media. Librarians, authors, publishers, patrons–we all see the inevitable digitization of media differently. We’re currently in a transitional phase and in light of recent events dealing with e-books ( Harper Collins anyone?) it’s clear to see that there is plenty of change to come.

The rising sales of Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers has many people pondering over the longevity of the book. Books can be damaged or misplaced, e-books can be downloaded at your convenience and are less likely to be lost. However, it’s my opinion that people have a special material relationship with their print materials that is hard to replicate in the digital format. I like to write notes to myself in the margins to help me sum up main ideas and the physical act of writing helps gel those ideas in my mind. But the issue isn’t really new, remember when people thought vinyl records would become obsolete? Now there is a niche market for those who see them as a collector’s item, perhaps in the future this will be the same for books.

E-books have plenty going for them, but there are a few issues that need to be worked out. Not all books lend themselves easily to digitization. I love art books and I hope that by the time I’m very old, I’ll have a wonderful personal library filled with them. Some artists see the creation of a book an art, and have done very innovative things with books that would be very difficult to replicate in a digital format. An additional issue, is that not everyone has the money to afford an e-reader, so it’s important and relevant that libraries would still provide physical copies of best sellers. The e-reader market will probably only strive to make up for these concerns by lowering prices and using emerging technology (like E Ink) to make its products seem like the real deal.

Taking all this into account, I also have to wonder about the future of books and their place in libraries, education, and our lives. Will our relationships with print materials transfer over to the digital? How will libraries accommodate these trends, especially with shrinking budgets and publisher’s e-lending policies? It’s hard to make that call now, but as future librarians, these are issues we will have to face.

What do you guys think about all this?  Do you relate differently to print material as opposed to digital? Are these issues being discussed in your programs?

13 replies

  1. This is a very relevant subject and with such technology advances as we see nowadays, the way that companies, libraries, and individuals interact with ebooks with lay legal precedents for years to come, I think. (This ties into copyright as well, but I won’t get all tangential at this point.)

    I think one thing to consider here is that many people frame this as an “either / or” situation and argument and it really shouldn’t be framed that way. I don’t think ebooks are meant to totally replace physical books, but that topic certainly sells well in a sensationalist, fear-driven media culture. The facts are there that more books are being printed and sold than ever before in human history. As you point out, physical books are better for some things, and ebooks are better for other things. (There are somewhat easy ways to make notes in ebooks, by the way; and though I empathize with your note-taking point, I’ve never been a margin writer myself.)

    I think materials that lend themselves better to the ebook format will excel, and those people who use those materials will demand more ebook access. I think academics could do very well with ebooks. The state of academic journals is precarious — overpriced subscriptions to a very, very limited audience. If they embraced ebooks for their ability to share info quickly and to make relevant updates and new editions quickly, it could really take off. Art books, as you say, will probably “stay winning” in physical format.


    • I love that you remind us that we don’t have to “choose sides”–I run across this argument a lot as someone who does OA publishing and owns a Kindle, but is also a book collector and book artist. It’s hard to convince people on either side of a discussion about the future of the book that the codex book probably isn’t going to fade into obscurity anytime soon! From what I understand, many people still like interacting with books, and while e-books and e-journals have definite advantages, print books do too.
      It’s something we talk about a little bit in our classes, but I’ve seen it pop up more frequently on listservs frequented by book artists and historians. It would be nice to bring in a discussion of these formats into the classroom and to get the perspectives of the students!


  2. I agree with you that there will probably be a niche market for books, and I anticipate probably being a book collector.

    While books allow some creativity that is difficult if not impossible to replicate in electronic media, the inverse is also true. E-readers could have video embedded books, for example, or moving pictures à la Harry Potter. As a proponent of reading in general, I say bring on the new media and I hope people really innovate with it!

    That said, I’m still drawn to really old books – there is something about the beautiful bindings and having to be careful with the pages, the random capitalizations, and the quaintly outdated ideas that either fly in the face of modern conventional wisdom or confirm it. I recently cataloged my personal collection, most of which will be considered “really old books” by the time I have children old enough to read them, and it’s amazing how old they seem.

    I think the book has a future, in short, but so do e-readers. There’s room enough for all of them!


  3. I’m very interested in the ways that people relate to books vs. e-books. For example, teaching a kid how to read with a print picture book as opposed to something like an iPad or a Vook(is that still a thing people want?). How does that change the way the kid learns?


    • Oh it could easily depend on the child as well as the particular book, not to mention the parents or whomever is teaching – their preferences will definitely play a part.

      I can’t imagine board books going electronic right away… that’s a safety issue.


    • Good question, I wonder the same.

      Also, I lead preschool story time in a public library. For a larger group, it is important to have a book that is large enough for all the children to see the illustrations. There are even special “big books” published for this — large editions of popular picture books. I cannot see an e-book as being an asset in that setting.


      • In the public school arena, our district is using Follett e-books in conjunction with our interactive white boards in the classroom. They allow everyone in the room to see everything on the printed page, both words and pictures. This works for any type of book from picture books to non-fiction with their charts, maps and diagrams.

        On a personal level, I want students to share my long-time love of books, here referring to the physical object (ink printed on paper which is then bound). However, I have an e-book reader which I also love for entirely different reasons: portability of multiple volumes, adjustable type size, instant word definitions…. I don’t plan to get rid of my personal library of several thousand “real” books, but not having to find space for hundreds more is a relief.

        How this translates to the professional library world is a puzzlement. A display of book covers on a screen does not thrill me like a room full of books. Not having to search for yet another mis-shelved book on my shelves is a relief. I have very mixed feelings as I look to the future and wonder what’s in store.


  4. Well on a personal level, I only read print books. I don’t own an e-reader at this time, and even reading articles from my computer screen annoys me — I prefer to print them out.

    On a professional level, I agree that it does not have to be an either/or situation. I believe there will always be space for both. I really cannot see e-books totally eliminating print books.

    On a side note, I work in a public library system, and recently the Director of this system was quoted in a newspaper article saying that “traditional” library services are no longer relevant (i.e. lending print materials, providing in-person reference). She says internet is now everyone’s go-to for research, and in the next five years everyone will be using all e-books.

    I think that is a bit extreme, especially for a public library system which serves people of various education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I know the branch I work at, print materials are still the norm.


  5. For myself, the very act of holding the physical book is more than just reading. The feel of the book, the smell of paper, is part of the entire experience. I don’t doubt for a minute that as technology advances, e-readers will only expand their market and become a household thing. If it gets more people to read, that’s fine with me. I personally don’t own one because I don’t see it as more important to buy than the mountains of print materials I want. I don’t want to spend $150 just for something to read my books with, that comes free with the actual book ;).

    As for children’s books, picture books specifically, I really don’t know how that would work on an e-reader, not to the extent that a picture book does in its physical form. And what of pop ups? I know they are expensive, especially some of the elaborate ones, but who knows, perhaps a 3-D e-reader is destined for the future.

    Ultimately, there is a loss in the translation. I hope that the physical book never disappears, but from an eco-friendly point of view, may we find e-readers that more people are comfortable with.


    • Ruth- I agree with everything you have said. You also bring a good point with pop-up books, I used to love those as a kid and recently, I got an art book which was designed to be interactive in the same way a pop-up book is. I love excellent book design.


  6. I agree with a lot of the comments stated above. Personally, I’m a book reader. I use a computer at work all day; when I come home, I want to stop looking at a screen, and start looking at a page. Books you can curl up with. That said, I don’t think it’s going to be an either/or situation right away. I think both will live. (The book “Case for Books” discusses that very same idea). And like stated above, I believe kids books will definitely continue on…I’m not going to give an electronic devise to a toddler!

    I saw a great ad done by “Power of Magazines” in an issue of Glamour a bit ago (guilty pleasure read!) It basically said that despite the rise of popularity of the Internet, magazines aren’t dying out. (Okay, small ones might be, but I don’t see Rolling Stone going under any time soon). It basically says the same thing – just because people like the Internet, doesn’t mean they can’t also like magazines. (See ad here:

    So, just because people like the digital age, doesn’t mean they’ll stop using real books.


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