Will the move toward ebooks leave the poor behind?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 22 2011 9:58 AM

Will the Move Toward eBooks Hurt the Poor?

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Photo by DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images

When Amazon announced yesterday that Kindle-formatted ebooks are finally (finally!) available for loan at many public libraries, I nearly squealed in the middle of a Very Important Meeting. (That’ll teach me to scroll through Twitter when I should be paying attention.) I’ve been waiting impatiently for this day since Overdrive, the company that provides the bulk of digital library materials in the United States, announced earlier this year that it would start dealing in Kindle materials.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

On Technology Review, Christopher Mims pours some rain on my parade. Though this move to make the Kindle library-friendly might seem to democratize the ebook reader, he says, there are hidden dangers. “Access to knowledge has long been seen as vital to the public interest -- literally, in economic parlance, a "public good" -- which is why libraries have always been supported through taxes and philanthropy,” he writes. But at least one publisher, Harper Collins, has already tightly limited the number of times an ebook can be loaned by a library—just 26 check-outs allowed. Digital rights management has drastically altered our concept of “ownership,” and now the library, that palace of egalitarian learning, may be threatened, says Mims.

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His assessment may be somewhat pessimistic, particularly in addressing the cost of e-readers:

[T]here remains the possibility that the demands of profitability will drive makers of e-readers to simply set a floor on the price they're willing to charge for one and attempt to continually innovate toward tablet-like functionality in order to justify that price.

I think it is more likely that there will be a wide range of options just as there are cell phones, with cheap, limited-functionality models available for those with tighter budgets. But the point nevertheless remains: In a time of tightened budgets, libraries are likely facing pressure to adapt new technology even as they struggle to keep doors open. Ebooks will allow them to keep books circulating even if hours are reduced. But librarians, who have been at the forefront of the fight against censorship, will also have to become advocates for keeping learning egalitarian—and that means not abandoning hardcover books any time soon.

Read more on Technology Review.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.