Book Review: No Shelf Required

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Polanka, Su, ed. No Shelf Required: E-Books in Libraries.  American Library Association, 2011.

I have to be up front with you guys: I don’t have a Kindle.  I’m certainly not a luddite and I’ve spent most of my life around computers.  I remember first getting dial-up AOL at my house in elementary school, I had an AIM screen name and Live Journal account in middle school, my first cell phone at 15, and my mother still blames all her computer problems on Napster.  You’d think someone like me who wants to be a librarian in the digital age would be fully seduced by the e-book.  Heck, I even work for a program that implements technology instruction for teenagers.  And yet, seduced I’m not.  Sure, I have the typical complaints about missing the essence of the book–the pages! the feel! the margin notes!–but I’m also concerned about the implications of e-books for the preservation and perpetuation of knowledge.  What does it mean for a library to no longer own a part of its collection but instead own licenses to it? What would it mean for OverDrive (or some other third-party vendor) to go out of business, or more likely consolidate with another vendor?  How are e-books in libraries serving the mission of increasing information and technology literacy?  It’s no joke the digital divide still exists, so how can e-books be used to serve this population?  So, when I asked the HLS team for suggestions for books and Polanka’s No Shelf Required came up, I was in.  “Convince me,” I dared it.

No Shelf Required is a compilation of essays about the benefits and challenges of e-books in various library settings.  From academic to public to school libraries, I was introduced to a whole host of opportunities e-books can provide.  One example that resonated with me was the use of e-books in schools to assist students with learning or reading disabilities.  E-book technology allows students to improve their reading skills in private and without the constant presence of a teacher.  This means he or she could do more at home or in the same classroom as his or her peers which would reduce the size of the over-burdened special education classrooms.  The same technology could be used in public libraries for ESL instruction or in job skills development programs.  No Shelf reminded me that e-books go beyond the Kindle and Nook and can be really innovative pieces of technology that can enhance and supplement curricula and literacy education.

Many librarians are concerned with the implications of e-book technology on their jobs.  I have to admit, I was one of them.  However, this book indirectly addresses this concern by convincing me that there is a lot, a lot, of work to be done to incorporate e-books into existing collections.  From vendor negotiation, to cataloging the e-books, to instruction on how to use them, to marketing them to the staff and community, our jobs aren’t going anywhere.  In fact, one of the challenges e-books pose is restructuring library workflows to figure out who is responsible for what.  This book posits that there will be a lot more overlap and cooperation in our jobs and that, for instance, cataloging and marketing will work together more.  For those of us Chicken Littles who are always expecting the sky to fall, this is a relief.  For a while I was sure that library jobs would become obsolete thanks to e-books (ridiculous, I know).  After reading this book, I’m feeling more optimistic and–dare I say–hopeful?  The jobs aren’t going anywhere; as information becomes more and more digital, our insight and skill set are needed more than ever.  We just have to be a little more creative, a little more willing to step outside our comfort zone.

While No Shelf didn’t entirely convince me that licensing library collections is necessarily a good thing, I’m glad I read this book.  As an emerging librarian, I understand much better the ins-and-outs of the e-book world, the opportunities and challenges it poses.  While the authors have no problem admitting that e-book standards have a long way to go, I have a better idea of the kinds of considerations needed while negotiating e-book contracts and the kinds of services e-book technology can provide.  Alice Crosetto’s article, “The Use and Preservation of E-books” even assuaged some of my worries about knowledge preservation.  For those who are already mostly sold on the idea of e-books but need a framework to contextualize them in your particular program, this is an excellent read.  I, though, need a little more selling.  The one thing this book didn’t do was really address some serious concerns about the implications of e-books on collections and curricula.  Furthermore, while the authors are quick to note funding as a large barrier to e-book access, there is less emphasis on other barriers like unwilling or unskilled librarians, unfavorable vendor contracts, or incorporating new technologies into existing educational paradigms.  I was hoping this book would provide me with some of the answers; I realize, of course, that it can’t.  It’s up to us future library professionals to decide what the future of e-books and their role in our world will be and make up those answers for ourselves.  I for one am excited for the ride.

*For those interested in even more e-book conversation, be sure to check out Su Polanka’s blog “No Shelf Required.”

2 replies

  1. This is was a great post, thank you for addressing it. I feel that the last section of your post was … best suited to current students, the future is ours and our job is to find the solutions to the plethora of tricky situations that librarians and information professionals face. Thanks!


  2. I find myself in a very similar mindset – I don’t own an e-reader and I’m about to dive head first into a profession where e-readers are becoming normal. The surrounding issues and implications have made me somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of an e-reader in a way that has nothing to do with the digital format. Still, I must be a well-informed information professional. Thanks for the book review. I’ll definitely be checking it out.


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