Books are shape-shifters.
From a clay tablet, they evolve into a papyrus scroll and then into the codex, the securely fastened stack of paper pages between hard covers that we all recognize as a book.
The covers on books have evolved too, from wood and leather to cloth and the ever-present paperback.
Now, there are books that have no physical shape at all.
Transmitted, stored and read as electronic files, they are transforming the ways we learn, teach, work and entertain ourselves. These e-books have spread rapidly.
According to a recent Pew study, one-fifth of Americans report they have read an e-book in the past year. More books are being published in only electronic form.
Although most libraries are attempting to respond to this rapid change by offering e-books to their borrowers, we are at a serious disadvantage.
Some book publishers are refusing to provide e-books to libraries, while others are charging us far higher prices.
“The Twelve” by Justin Cronin, published by Random House, costs libraries about $16 in printed book form. The e-book version sells to the public for $9.99 on Amazon. Random House’s price to libraries: $84.
All six of the major publishing houses (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster) are practicing some form of restriction, delay, denial or price gouging.
As “Libraries, Publishers and Public Access to E-Books,” a recent Briefing Paper from the Urban Libraries Council, makes clear, this matters: “Public libraries are democracy’s best kept promise. It is the promise that information and the pursuit of knowledge are available to all… When E-Books are withheld from libraries, it undermines a key element of this promise to provide information and technology to the public.”
The Downers Grove Public Library will continue to work with national and local library groups, publishers and distributors to address this situation.
Our historical predecessors helped their communities take advantage of the earlier shape shifting of books. Now, we are making every effort to improve access to books, in whatever form, for the public.
To follow our progress on this, visit www.dglibrary.org/big6.php.
Rick Ashton is executive director of the Downers Grove Public Library.