Sometime around the first of October, patrons of the Central Arkansas Library System will be able to check out books from CALS, read them and return them, without ever going to the library. Some readers are more excited about this innovation than others.
The convenient volumes will not be printed books, but e-books. For laggards on the electronic curve, e-book is short for electronic book. An e-book is the digital equivalent of a conventional printed book. The e-book is read on a personal computer or other electronic device.
CALS is ordering e-books now, and plans to have several hundred titles on hand when it begins offering e-books to the public. By way of contrast, CALS owns around 800,000 conventional books and tapes.
E-books are already available from other sources. The first e-book was published in 1993. But the e-book market, though growing, is still relatively small. That may be about to change.
Sony Corp. announced last week that it will soon offer an e-book reader to compete with Kindle, a device sold by Amazon.com. Kindle can only display books purchased from Amazon. The Sony device will be able to show books from a variety of sources, including public libraries.
Bobby Roberts, executive director of CALS, thinks Sony has the advantage. Suppose a Kindle user wants to read the latest Danielle Steel, he says. She buys the e-book from Amazon, she reads it on her Kindle, and she owns it ever after, as she does any other e-books she buys. “What do I want with 100 novels that I'm never going to read again?” Roberts asks.
A CALS patron could download the latest Danielle Steel, and keep it for a couple of weeks (during which time no one else could get to it) before it reverted to the library. E-books never get lost, Roberts said, and they're never overdue.
From the library's point of view, the e-book is a great space saver. The library doesn't have to keep all the bulky conventional volumes that cause it to be forever seeking more room. The e-book also frees librarians from the chore of re-shelving books.
Will people actually read full-length books on a computer screen? Roberts won't. He says that after working on a computer all day, he has no interest in going home and reading 50 pages of a novel on a computer. But he admits to being behind on the electronic curve. There are people on his staff who already do most of their reading electronically, he says.
Still, he believes that music CDs and books on tape will be more popular digitally than conventional books.
“I'm not sure how well books will be received,” Roberts says. “We'll know in a year or two.”