E-Readers and Public Library Books: A Tribe of Readers

An article in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch regarding e-readers and the downloading of library books has me thinking about how we’ve been quick to exchange an aesthetic experience for convenience. I already have nostalgia for the now defunct card catalog in libraries. How close are we to only having virtual libraries and no printed materials at all?

I’ve always been one to believe that there are too many of us who are in love with the sensory experience of a book (the feel of the paper, the smell of the binding, etc.) as well as with the artistry that goes into making such an object, that books will always exist.

But listen to how Robin Nesbitt, director for technical services for the Columbus Metropolitan Library,  is indirectly quoted in this article: If users flock to digital books, it’s possible Columbus and other libraries will begin to shift their materials budgets from physical to digital versions. I don’t know about you, but that leaves me just a tad uneasy, even though a librarian friend of mine says that she thinks for the time being e-books and printed books will have a friendly coexistence in our public libraries.

Here’s a link to the article, in case you’re interested:


I was watching a scene in a movie recently where someone was showing a card catalog to someone else, and it brought back memories of sliding out a drawer and flipping through the index cards. I remember how I could slide a drawer all the way out and rest it on a table if I chose. I remember the little pull-out shelf that I could use to rest a notebook on and jot down the call number for a book I wanted. Who can forget those stubby pencils in a box for anyone who needed one and the slips of paper that you could use if you didn’t have a notebook?

What a joy it was to wander through the stacks, looking for the books on my list, gathering them in my arms, and hauling them to the front desk where the librarian would remove the cards from the pockets inside the covers and stamp them with the due dates, which he or she would also record on the slip of  paper glued inside the back cover. That slip would have a record of all the other due dates for patrons who had checked that book out before I found it. What a miracle, I still think, that we can essentially be given the gift of a library book. For a time, it’s ours, free of charge. All we have to do is to agree to bring it back. And, oh, what things one can find in those books, items left behind by others who’ve read it–a grocery list used as a bookmark, a dogeared page, maybe even a penciled exclamation in the margin, a stain from a coffee cup, a burn hole from a cigarette, a hairpin, a paper clip. All the signs of others come before me, signs of this tribe of readers.

What will our signs be if printed books vanish and our novels, our collections of poems and stories, our nonfiction books, are merely blips of data stored on computer chips? How will we know that others have read these “books,” that they mattered, not only to a single reader, but in a way to all of us?




  1. John Zulovitz on April 26, 2011 at 3:53 am

    Here here, Lee. I was thinking about this just the other afternoon while at the library. There is something instrinsically delicious about a book: the weight of it in your hands; the brief but exciting snippets of names and words that peek up from it whenever you riffle through the pages; the scent of it, like something simultaneously ancient and new (a kind of moted-slant-of-sunlight smell); and perhaps best of all, the sense that held within its rectangular borders is a both a mystery and promise slowly to be divulged.

    I have not, nor will I, subscribe to the e-book revolution. Not that others have tried (and failed) to coax me into joining it. I’m polite about it, and civil — yet also rather staunch. For I believe stories told on a screen should fit into that category called “motion pictures.” As for written words? Give me my medicinal-scented wood pulp and be done with it.

    Beyond that, there’s much about all of this “technological advancement” through which we’re going that troubles me. For instance: cell phones. Does it not bother others that they may now be reached at just about any second of the day? Emergencies, I understand; but my goodness, whatever happened to checking one’s answering machine or being reached via landline? And driving a car! Better one concentrates on the road than the receiver pressed to one’s ear. And what is it exactly with all of this texting nonsense (it’s “you are” or “you’re”; not “UR”)? Since when was actual verbal intercourse deemed to be such an annoying and expendable practice? (An aside: Years ago, I served a man and his wife who had decided to meet each other for lunch. During this “lunch” — when most people would have, oh, held a conversation and, perhaps, focused on one another — the husband and wife chose instead to speak to other people on their cells. It was unnerving then, and it’s still unnerving as I consider it now.) Ironically, we now have variegate means by which to connect with others, and yet it seems that people are truly communicating less and less, enveloped as they are with all the bristling flash and dazzle of the latest “gadgets.”

    So, I’ll keep my books, thank you. I will be as grateful for them now as I have always been, perusing my shelves, finding whatever volume for which I’m looking at a given moment, and sitting down and relaxing with it: a tangible object that, cracked opened, brims with entertainment, instruction, knowledge.

    Oh, and as for those stubby pencils and not-quite-squarely-cut slips of paper? They do still exist, my friend. Only now, instead of being found next to that multi-tiered and -drawered box known as a card catalogue, they’re sitting next to computers. (Computers I forgive, as I learned how to type when I was eleven, and writing prose via a keyboard works far better for me than doing so in longhand. Helps me to better keep with the flow of my thoughts.)

    Now, where was I?

    • Lee Martin on April 26, 2011 at 4:54 pm

      John, not to mention the deadly combo that really drives me crazy–someone talking on a cell phone while in a public lbrary!

Leave a Comment