Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The pocket circulating library

I think I get it. I know, I'm probably the last blogger of the biblioblogosphere to talk about e-readers, but I think I just got it.

Obviously, I love books as things. The physical artifact. Paper, ink, boards, cloth, leather, all of it. I have not really understood the fascination with e-books. Until now. They seem pretty unsatisfactory, by and large, but are improving. I'll also admit I have an ereader app or few on my iphone. I use Stanza for books from Project Gutenberg (30K+ titles for free!) and MegaReader for access to books from Archive.org (Over a million, all free!).

I've used it to read in line at the Post Office, etc., and occasionally for reading in bed when I've not planned well and my TBR pile has shrunk too low to suit whatever reading mood I'm in. I do not use it for my primary reading source, nor do I ever expect it to.

Enter a fantastic book I read this past week: A Book For a Sixpence by David Kaser. Kaser examines the history of subscription libraries in the US. This was part of the Beta Phi Mu chapbook series, which is a must-have for students of the history of the book. This is not exhaustive, nor does he make any claims of it being so. There were many places in Kaser's study that prompted me to ask questions that no one has yet found answers to (I think). There is also a very good bibliography, index and a couple appendices listing known American circulating libraries before 1900. After a very cursory search through my limited records, I only found a few not listed in this 30 year old work, but I imagine records for such would be elusive at best, but searchability will improve as more institutional collections migrate online.

Reading this book made the light come on. E-readers are the new circulating libraries! Sure, you get to keep the "book" longer, but you don't own it. Your subscription fee is the price of the hardware reader, then you pay for access to the text, not for the book itself.

You never own the text on an e-reader. Except when they're free, then no one seems to really care. But you still don't own it.

In this context, e-readers make more sense. When I try to equate buying an "e-book" (an ugly chimera of a word!) with buying a book -- it doesn't come together in my mind. It doesn't add up. I "buy" an "e-book" and I have no or very limited lending rights, right of first sale is out the window, etc. However, when I consider using an e-reader as a 21st Century subscription library that merely grants access to works, it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

I know most of you have not struggled with this, nor have you sought any kind of justification for buying an e-reader or using one. I think however, I've finally found mine.


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