Can I just say something? I’m wary of ereaders. Try as I do to reject “traditional” librarian stereotypes (I mean, I wear cardigans, but I wear them ironically), the idea of books on screens presents such a huge revolution in the way I operate as a school librarian that I can’t help but be hesitant. I have trouble going from a physical book, where you buy it, own it, and circulate it until someone spills juice on it (an elementary school example) or it’s set aflame at a death metal concert (an assumed high school example—I don’t work with that age group), to an ereader. To me, the device is equivalent to an electronic pet—charge me, sync me, password protect me, don’t drop me. So many needs.
Sometimes I like to reminisce about those halcyon days, lo those 24 months ago when librarianship was so simple. Collection development, purchasing, programs, selection—it all made sense, didn’t it? The emergence of the ebook is changing all that. I look on the horizon and I see organized chaos at best, library anarchy at worst.
But digital has its advantages. Multiple books can be read on the same device, easing strained shelves. Options like adjustable font size, highlighting, and note-taking make for a more customizable reading experience, and there’s a cool factor and convenience that will generate interest in reading. It’s time to dip my toe in the digital waters.
In order to decide which device to buy, I asked around. What I quickly realized is that folks tend to recommend that you buy the same one they did: “Get the one I have, because… it’s the one I have!”
To complicate matters, new models are coming out all the time. For people who like to make sound purchasing decisions with the goal of long-term satisfaction (see: librarians), this could make you cry, or, for the old timers, vent your anger by shushing with more aggression. How do you know when to pull the trigger when the cycle always works like this:
1. A new device comes out; it’s expensive.
2. The device comes down in price, but a new model
is just about to come out.
3. Jump back to #1. Repeat 1–3 until…
4. You are a defeated person.
This represents a little something I like to call the slow, inevitable disenfranchisement of the gadget age. But maybe I’m over-thinking it. The time to get an ereader, I suppose, is now. So that’s what I did.
I bought a Kindle.
My ereader strikes me as more of a wonder than many other gadgets I own, maybe because it makes no sound at all. None. The E Ink also makes it seem very un-computer-like. So you have this thin, lightweight, silent device connecting to the Internet and downloading books. It’s almost eerie. Having my ereader quietly access the Web gave me visions of 1984, only if Big Brother isn’t out to keep the proletariat down. He just really wants you to buy the latest book about vampires in high school.
At first the excitement of reading a book on this new technology was distracting. I’m trying to read, but my mind is saying “what you’re reading isn’t a book” over and over. That feeling eventually passed.
The first couple of times, I fell into using my ereader like my neck-straining laptop—by sitting up and hunching over it. It soon dawned on me that I could hold it however I wanted. Hello, fully reclined position! A refreshment? Why not? At that moment, I determined that for reading, ereaders are a 1,000 percent improvement over laptops (or whatever the percentage is when you go from terrible to pretty good).
While I’m more focused here on the emotional than the physical, I will say this: the Kindle buttons could use a redesign. It’s difficult to hold the thing when you’re worried about turning the page. This led to some drops—which the device survived.
If you ever want to question the worth of a new technology, try explaining it to your dad. Or, specifically, to my dad. During a weekend visit, I showed him my Kindle. He was curious about it, but in the end he wasn’t sold. He made two comments that I found myself agreeing with:
1. “I like reading the actual book.”
2. “I like visiting an actual bookstore.”
The man makes some good points, which tie into how I bought ebooks.
Buying/checking out books
If there was ever an area that ereader manufacturers can improve, it’s buying a book. Sure, searching for and purchasing titles (from the connected store) is easy. But beyond picking from the bestseller lists, it’s hard to make discoveries—something that bookstores excel at.
Borrowing a book from the library went well. I had very low expectations about this, so the fact that it worked at all was a pleasant surprise. There were far fewer steps than I anticipated. A few clicks and I had the book on my device, ready to read for two weeks before it disappeared. Dare I say, it was slightly magical?
I was less impressed, however, with the books that were available. If buying books from the Kindle store is like HBO, borrowing from the library is like STARZ—just eliminate all the stuff you actually want and leave the rest. The children’s book roster here is not pretty.
You can find a book to borrow in one of two ways:
1. Think of a book you want and type it in. Realize it isn’t available. Repeat.
2. Browse ebooks in the category of your interests and pick from that list (recommended).
There’s nothing worse than purchasing an expensive ereading device only to find the book you want isn’t available. It’s like buying a new car and realizing there are no roads, so you have to travel by horseback. While I appreciate the stoic majesty of a Clydesdale as much as the next guy, I’m not riding one to work. Although that would make for a memorable day.
Moreover, everything is checked out. All the time. This makes me realize that if they aren’t already, ebook lending is something that public and school libraries need to focus on.
Reading a paperless book
The idea of having your library on the Kindle has its pros and cons. For professional reading and books I’m too sheepish to admit to reading (like TITLE REDACTED), the Kindle is great. I’d rather not have those books taking up shelf space or embarrassing me with their unquestionable lameness. But for my pleasure reading collection, moving to the Kindle seems like I’m losing something. I enjoy having the books I like on my shelf. And I’d hate to lose the serious kid cred I get with my up-to-date “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” set.
While I don’t see anything truly supplanting the picture book any time soon, I can see ereaders becoming popular in schools. They would work well for lit-circle titles or other teacher reading lists. At my school, we have a Battle of the Books competition featuring 12 different titles—it would make perfect sense to load those onto an ereader and just have one checkout.
I can confirm the E Ink screen is awesome. It’s so easy on the eyes. And the ability to change the font size is something I could get used to in a hurry. Illustrations are rendered surprisingly well. My wife, a second grade teacher and one of the world’s foremost Judy Moody fans, came away impressed by how accurately the ereader rendered the fonts and black-and-white illustrations.
I didn’t expect to like the highlighting feature as much as I do, which comes in handy especially for professional books. Possibly my favorite part is that all annotations are kept in one place, and you can view them at a glance. It’s cool to see this list of memorable quotes grow.
The ereader may bring the ability to ignore a book to unheard-of levels. When one’s sitting around the house, it’s hard to miss. But when it’s on the Kindle, it’s out of sight, out of mind. A few of the library books I checked out went unread before they went “poof.”
The convenience is tough to deny, though. You could conceivably buy a book and read a couple of chapters while getting your oil changed. I wanted to try this, but something stopped me from pulling it out as I sat in the local Jiffy Lube. Librarian shame, perhaps? I guess I thought I’d look foolish. I may have to hollow out a thick book to hide my Kindle in. Speaking of, anyone have an extra Harry Potter 5 sitting around?
Although it’s pretty much impossible to improve upon the picture book for younger readers, I do see much of text-based reading for upper elementary school and above moving to ereaders in the coming years. I was awarded a grant to purchase some for my school district this year, so I’ll be working on implementing ereaders for student checkout.
Although the ebook revolution means the future of librarianship and reading will be much different than we could have expected, I’d rather take part than watch. Here we go.
About the Author:
Elementary school librarian Travis Jonker (firstname.lastname@example.org) works for Wayland (MI) Union Schools and blogs at “100 Scope Notes.”