Sacramento readers, writers and book-lovers respond to the electronic migration
On a rainy Thursday, a solitary figure, teeth bared, watches over the children’s section of the Sacramento Public Library. The room is quiet, with some visitors working diligently on homework, while others tap away on computers. Posters on the walls featuring the actor Orlando Bloom, the rapper Ice Cube and other celebrities holding books encourage those in the children’s section to do one thing: read. Only one visitor follows that advice, however, and sits with a book in a comfortable armchair.
Perhaps this is why the solitary figure, a lavender skeleton of a dinosaur named Bookasaurus, does not look pleased. Intended to be a sort of mascot for the children’s section, Bookasaurus is equally relevant to book-loving creatures of all ages, a sort of symbol of the questions people are now asking in this increasingly wired, digital age.
Have physical books become the soon-to-be-extinct dinosaur in the room?
E-books have been on an uptrend for years, and there is no sign of this tapering off. In March, the Association of American Publishers reported that sales of e-books grew by 115 percent from January 2010 to January 2011. Along the way, net sales for e-books went from $32.4 million to $69.9 million. At the same time, sales of hardcover adult books fell from $55 million to $49.1 million.
This electronic migration of print books and content begs a question: What does it all mean for Sacramento readers, writers and bookworms?
Down the rabbit hole
On a recent weekday afternoon, Stacey Aldrich, the state librarian and self-described futurist, lines up several e-readers on her desk at the California State Library. She starts with a Rocket eBook from the late 1990s, which required a land line and allowed one to download a book onto the device. Next are two devices made possible with the emergence of wireless technology, a Kindle and iPad tablet.
These last two devices can be picked up and carried about much like a physical book and are the latest stage of an evolution that stretches back to antiquity. In those days, early books arose from beech bark (source of the word book), reusable wax tablets and codex. In addition to those early analog tablets, book formats have included papyrus, scrolls, handwritten manuscripts and mass-produced printed volumes—and now, back to tablets.
Aldrich’s interactive tablet, the iPad, contains Lewis Carroll’s story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with pictures that can be touched and turned into something else, much like an electronic rabbit hole.
She imagines the e-reader rabbit hole to soon extend even further.
“How we read and what we think of as a book is likely to change very soon,” Aldrich says. “Books are more likely to become interactive and use all the senses,” she explains, while mentioning the e-book she is currently reading by the Australian singer Nick Cave. When she tires of reading the book herself, she can switch to an audio option where Cave reads it to her in his distinctive, baritone voice.
In the future, Aldrich predicts electronic books will include virtual characters popping up for conversations with the reader, or even have holograms.
In fact, these types of features are already helping drive the popularity of e-books. According to AAP, about 10 percent of American adults owned an e-book device as of 2010, and e-books have already surpassed hardback sales on Amazon.com. As a part of that boom, Aldrich says an additional 40 new types of e-readers are expected to hit the market soon.
Before long, she adds, there will likely be interactive surfaces such as screens embedded directly into desktops.
A fire hose of information
Whether such changes in the basic format and concept of a book are for the better or an additional distraction in an increasingly technological world is a matter of debate. In the manner of Dr. Dolittle’s Pushme-Pullyu, an animal with two heads going in opposite directions, book professionals and readers generally see pros and cons.
About the only agreed upon certainty is that things are changing, and rapidly.
“There have always been critics of technology starting with the invention of the printing press, and we are at that stage now,” Bob Stanley, Sacramento poet laureate, says. “We are seeing more image-based and oral communications, but words are still an important part of it. In fact, people are writing more than ever through texts and email and Twitter, and the Internet is also giving them more of an opportunity to publish.”
Andy Jones, a writing and technology instructor at UC Davis, shares Stanley’s enthusiasm. “It’s exciting from an educator’s point of view,” he says of the rise of electronic information.
“Students are more immersed in a text-centric way of thinking, which helps them in a number of ways. It forces them to write and engage in text, though their reading becomes more fragmented, as they tend to sample texts more in the way people now also sample songs.”
Such fragmentation, though, has also generated concern about the effect on attention spans and absorption of material.
“I do think it is making us think and process things in different ways,” Stanley says.
Aldrich concurs about this last point.
“I am concerned about rewiring of the brain,” she says. “Sometimes it is hard for me to read a full book and be engaged.
“It seems we are multitasking more, and I wonder what that means for developing ideas and concepts. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. … We have a fire hose of information right now, and it’s easy to lose things in those streams of water.”
Digital natives weigh in
For students in Stanley’s Sacramento City College class, the fire hose of electronic content is both a blessing and a literal headache. The class, required for sophomores, represents the awkward in-between stage of the current era.
Nearly all the students are in their early 20s, and as such represent a demographic known as “digital natives”—individuals who have lived with the Internet and electronic information for most of their lives and are therefore native to it. Even so, during a class debate about the influence of technology on their education—a discussion that included using a decidedly old-school analog overhead projector—the students said that for all the benefits, electronic technology still has its limitations.
“It definitely makes me jump around more in my reading,” says one student. “I look at a [physical] book and go, ‘Boring chapter, skip it; boring chapter, skip it; good chapter, read it.’ It’s like when you are reading, you can skip the stuff you don’t want.”
The students also agree that for them reading physical books is also not necessarily essential. When asked how many had read a book for pleasure in the last year, about a third of the class of 33 students raise their hands. The students also say that they don’t use physical books to retrieve information for school assignments, though they stress they could do so if needed.
“I haven’t used a book for school since high school,” says Danielle Wolter. She cited the advantages of using the Internet for research, particularly the speed and convenience, echoing a point made earlier by Aldrich that computers are increasingly replacing book-based reference sections.
Despite this, and while lamenting about the elementary-school students they see who are constantly on cell phones, the Sacramento City students also stressed that there is a still a place for physical books, too.
“I can’t read online too long. It gives me a headache, so I end up printing it out anyway,” Wolter says.
Doug Thao, a computer science major, adds to nods of agreement. He hates using digital textbooks because he is unable to complete complex math equations. Instead, he says, he writes them out by hand on paper and then types them into the computer.
Tipping point for publishers?
For better or worse, more scattered thinking or not, these waves of electronic information will no doubt increase as more and more material moves online.
Both Aldrich and Rivkah Sass, director of the Sacramento Public Library system, say that demand for e-books and access to electronic information is on the rise statewide and here in Sacramento. SPL, for instance, uses the popular e-book distributor OverDrive, which reported a 200 percent increase in e-book usage between 2009 and 2010. In the face of this trend, libraries are struggling to keep up.
One particular concern, Sass says, is the digital divide between those who have access to the Internet and e-reading devices, and those who do not.
“We are worried about the people who don’t have the foundation to keep up with the new technology,” Sass says. “The longer they are out of the game, the harder it is for them to catch up.”
This challenge of accessibility has become more difficult for libraries in recent years due to the budget cuts that have shortened hours and services.
“At the local level there is no funding, and communities have to figure out how to make up the difference,” Aldrich says.
This funding gap could also grow worse.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed eliminating $30 million in state funding to libraries, though $15 million has since been restored. In Sacramento, the countywide SPL has reduced its hours by 5.5 percent since 2009, while the number of visitors rose by nearly 2 percent. At the same time, budget issues also forced the library to cut such services as bookmobiles and visits to those unable to leave their homes. The library’s bookmobile service is now down to one vehicle and has eliminated half of its stops—visits to places that are typically underserved by branch libraries.
“Ensuring access for everyone is huge for us, and the fewer hours has a huge impact,” Sass says.
As part of that accessibility goal, and in the face of surging demand for digital material, SPL plans to roll out a pilot project in April that targets both those issues. The initiative allows library users to borrow actual e-readers rather than needing their own device to read e-books.
These e-books, though, are at the center of an ongoing tussle between libraries and publishers. Some publishers, including Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, don’t allow libraries to access their e-books. Other publishers are having second thoughts about doing so. This March, the publisher HarperCollins enforced a policy granting libraries access to an e-book title for only 26 checkouts, roughly the equivalent of a year. Thereafter, libraries will have to pay to renew the license.
In response, SPL plans to launch its new project that will give them more control of the e-books they have. In April, the library system, in partnership with Barnes & Noble, will make 108 e-readers called Nooks available for borrowing at all 28 of its branches.
“Nooks allow us to be more flexible, choose by genre what goes on the e-book and make upgrades in the future,” Denise Davis, a library deputy director overseeing the initiative, says. Davis also lists the adaptability of e-readers as an advantage, as it allows a reader to change the font size, digitally bookmark and make notes, or switch to audio. On the other hand, Davis says, there is concern that e-publishers might see books as a commodity, and make available only popular demand best sellers, rather than niche titles.
“There may become a tipping point for publishers where it is no longer profitable to publish on paper,” she says.
As way to avoid these issues, Sass also envisions a not-too-distant future where libraries will become publishers themselves, through print on demand.
“Fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t have considered [acquiring] what was then called vanity publishing, or self-publishing, but now we are increasingly adding those titles to [our] collection,” she says. “We want to be a supplier of information, not a repository.”
Say farewell to the hubs
For Richard Hansen, owner of The Book Collector on 24th Street, books are about more than just information. Standing among the stacks of used books in his store, which has a musty smell and a cramped but cozy layout of narrow aisles and tall shelves piled with volumes, Hansen greets arriving customers with the familiarity of a neighbor, which makes sense, since the store has been open 16 years.
“Bookstores are a real community hub, places that reflect the individuality of the owners and a place to meet friends or new people with shared interests,” he says, noting the readings and other events his store hosts.
Hansen is not sure how much longer this will be the case, or how much longer his store can hold out against the onslaught of digital information.
“E-books, not the recession, have dramatically changed our bottom line,” he said. “They have taken away our most avid customers, who now get this guilty look when you run into them on the street.”
Hansen adds that the shift to e-books hits more than just his bottom line.
“The era when cities are bustling with bookstores is over,” he says. “There will come a point when a city will have only one or two bookstores, and small towns will have none. I am not sure what will take their place.”
Customer Lia Chase, a recent Sacramento State graduate who hopes to go to medical school, also sees bookstores as a community resource. “The individual stores help give Midtown its identity,” she says. “And [bookstores] make it a more vibrant, cultural place with individual stores, not big chains, stores that are nice to support because of their individuality, and fun to walk to.”
Rachel Hansen, who runs The Book Collector with her husband, adds that people are now less inclined to stop by the store and explore.
“In the past, people would come in looking for something specific, and if we didn’t have it, they would stay and browse,” she says. “Now if we don’t have it, they turn around, walk out and order it online.”
In addition, Richard Hansen adds, people now also seem less interested in keeping the books they own.
“We are seeing more and more people come in with bags of books and drop them off saying they don’t want them,” he says. “It is not that people aren’t reading, it’s just that they are reading online.”
The next chapter
But some are not ready to let go of the physical book. For them, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of books’ death may be greatly exaggerated.
And so, on the last Saturday in March, bibliophiles from the Central Coast to Lodi to the Gold Country gather at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center for the Sacramento Antiquarian Book Fair. More than 50 book sellers fill the large assembly room, providing a place for people to buy and trade old books. The selections include original Twain classics and campy noir such as I Married a Lush to a 60-year old science-fiction series about space explorers called, of all things, The Rolling Stones.
There is no dinosaur mascot in the corner urging people to read books with the tag line “Bone to read.” Instead, the visitors already have reading and books in their bones.
“I love it here,” says graduate student Megan O’Haire. “There is a such [a] physical quality to the book; it has a touch and smell that makes them personal. And then you can give it to someone as a gift.”
O’Haire, like the rest of those on hand, has stowed or turned off all electronic gadgets for the duration of the fair.
The most visible high-tech items on view are an adding machine and a magnifying glass. Without cell phones or other electronic devices in hand, the crowd wanders from stall to stall, seemingly content to let their imaginations run wild, making connections as they desire between one thing and another, free from the distractions or digital grip of an e-reader or an app.