As my many blog posts on the subject prove, I've been wrestling in my own mind about what the future of books might be, so I found this article by Hugh McGuire about the inevitable (at least in his view) blurring of the line between "books" and the Internet from today's O'Reilly Radar very interesting.
McGuire notes that "Ebooks to date have mostly been approached as digital versions of a print books that readers can read on a variety of digital devices, with some thought to enhancing ebooks with a few bells and whistles, like video" and goes on to talk about all of the things that you can do with the Internet that you (deliberately?) can't do with e-books in their current form and about the unkown, but likely immense, value that could be tapped if books offered the same kinds of accessibility and functionality as a well-designed website. He concludes:
"I don't know what smart things people will start to do when books are truly of the Internet.
But I do know that it will happen, and the "Future of Publishing" has something to do with this. The current world of ebooks is just a transition to a digitally connected book publishing ecosystem that won't look anything like the book world we live in now."
The conundrum for me has always been not that the Internet will enable some new "digitally connected book publishing ecosystem", which in my mind is inevitable, but about what that means for the ink-on-paper, physically-bounded books that so many of us cherish today.
I keep coming back to is the idea that we will not see the end of the "book" but rather the evolution of a world in which there are in fact two publishing ecosystems - the Internet-based, API-enabled one that McGuire foresees (and by the way his layman's explanation of what an API is and why it is important is as good as I have seen), where what is published won't necessarily be recognizable as and may not be called a "book" and one where the "book" continues to be published much as it currently is. [I should note that when I say "book" I mean some form of words on a page...which could include magazines and other forms of "print" media as well].
I first encountered this idea in a NY Times Op Ed piece by James Gleick back in December 2008 - that the book much as we know it today will continue to exist "as a physical object, and as an idea, and as a set of literary forms."
At the end of his essay Gleick urges publishers to "Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it."
Where I perhaps differ with Gleick is that I think we need expand the idea of "book" to encompass both the physical object "printed in ink on durable paper" and the electronic version where the same words are printed in e-ink on e-paper and read on a screen...the "e-book" as we know it today.
Why? Because as much as I love the experience of reading a traditional, physical book I can see the advantages of having the option to read that same book digitally - you can carry around multiple books on a device that weighs no more than a single physical book, you can read in bed without having the light on, you can adjust the font size and contrast so you can enjoy reading even if you are visually impaired.
In my mind "books" will be with us for a long time to come, although our definition of what constitutes a book is no longer limited to the physical object. Whether physical or electronic, however, they will still be structured to support the contemplative act of reading described in this essay by David Ulin that appeared in the Los Angeles Times about a year ago.
At the same time, the Internet will enable new ways of "reading" - where ideas and information may not be structured into sentences, paragraphs and chapters; where hyperlinks and global positioning systems allow you to travel from a place name on a screen to a map or satellite image of that place, where you and others can collaborate to change the outcome of a story.
I tbelieve that these two models of "reading" can co-exist. I also believe that it is important for libraries to understand and participate in both models, but that our value will continue to be in what we do to support and sustain the former...because no matter how exciting the new world of Internet reading might be, it is not a substitute for the process and structure of organizing ideas within the constraints of the printed page, and then giving others access to those ideas through the act of focused, contemplative reading.