By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 6/28/2005 8:11:55 PM ET 2005-06-29T00:11:55

Of all the Practical Futurist columns I’ve written over the last four years, last week’s piece on “ Turning Books into Bits ” attracted the very least amount of reader feedback. I’m not sure whether that’s because people aren’t that interested in libraries, or if the enormous transition described in the piece just didn’t provoke many reactions. 

Several writers, however, said that I should have noted Project Gutenberg, which indeed I will. The oldest book digitizing project around, and entirely non-profit, Project Gutenberg now offers over 16,000 public domain books in electronic form, free for the downloading.  And it’s doing well: according to the site, over one million e-books were downloaded from Project Gutenberg in just the past 30 days. Not surprisingly, at the moment, "War of the Worlds" is the most popular title. 

It was the idea of digital books, rather than the notion of new types of libraries, that brought the most reader reactions:

Mike Mustin, Richmond, IN: It is interesting to note that the printed book will have lasted about 500 years. Back in 1500 books were very expensive — and now we're on the way to ensuring that a real, bound volume will be as rare and expensive as it in that long ago year. Somehow, I think the experience of curling up with a phosphor screen (or equivalent LCD) will not be the same as doing so with a printed book. Time marches on, however, and we likely will have to bow to the inevitable. Only the eyestrain will remain the same.

Coincidentally, just last week I was on a panel at Yale, at the New Haven Festival of Arts & Ideas, called “Coroner’s Inquest: The Death of the Book.” The topic — rather overstated for dramatic effect — grew out of a National Endowment for the Arts study in 2004 called “Reading at Risk,” which showed that literary reading — fiction, poetry, plays — was on the decline in the United States, particularly among younger readers.

The panel covered far too much territory to cover here, but the issue of e-books came up several times. I pointed out that the problem with e-books thus far is that we really haven’t invented any decent reading devices — no e-book equivalent to the iPod. Such a device, however, is just a matter of time — and will probably arrive along with a new generation of adults who are as accustomed to the screen as paper.

Another issue that arose during the panel was that electronic searching tends to focus on isolated facts rather than analysis; Google or its competitors produce the exact fact you need, eliminating the need to page through a printed book, as well as seeing the fact in context.

Ironically, the next day at the American Library Association conference in Chicago, a fascinating Silicon Valley firm called Ebrary announced some new products for public libraries based on its Ebrary Reader. The biggest advantage to the Ebrary technology is that users can access electronic books one page at a time. Previously you had to download an entire e-book to see one page — Ebrary lets libraries deliver just one page, or a few pages, if that’s all that is relevant to the search.  And then you can link from that page directly to relevant pages in other books.

It’s an incredibly powerful technology that opens up the world of books in a way that was never before possible.  But it also fundamentally redefines the nature of books, fulfilling exactly a fear of the panel at Yale: that electronics will ultimately break the concept of the book down into much smaller units.  As in so other traditional media, the addition of technology will mean that something is lost and something is gained.  Those of us with feet on both sides of the transition can only hope that the latter will always outweigh the former. 

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