My 1/11/07 Missoulian column
When I started writing this column about books and book resources on the Web, I remembered back to when I had my first library card and brought home the biggest stack of books they’d let me. And I remembered later buying new paperbacks at the mall for 95 cents each.
Those memories made me feel old, but then I realized that technology in the past 20 years has been mostly good for book lovers and writers. What’s changed is the sheer number and availability of books in hard copy and electronic format and – for next week’s column – that anyone can now be a writer or publisher.
For library users, the availability of online catalogs is probably most noticeable; card catalogs were recycled long ago. In Montana, we have the Montana Library Network, which links public and higher education library catalogs from Miles City to Plains. The Missoula Public Library, offers its catalog, blogs and other resources over on the Web, while the University of Montana’s Mansfield Library, has world-class resources such as like Worldcat, with 61 million books records, available online for students and in house for the public. (The network also includes the Montana State Library, which has been in the news recently because it is considering cutting back on walk-in access to provide more online access to resources.)
For book buyers, you can – and, I think, always should – walk in the door, but several Missoula stores also are on the Web. Browse and order titles, and read news at Fact & Fiction; The Book Exchange; Shakespeare and Co. blogs and advertises readings; and Bird’s Nest Books stock can be searched. The “local nationals” include Barnes and Noble; Hastings; and Waldenbooks, which is now online through Amazon.com.
Do you want to be a book seller? You can sell books on Amazon or start your own online store at Alibris, right from your kitchen table without the overhead a Web site involves. Online used book dealers are a good way to find out-of-print books, though local used bookstores will help you, too.
Want to talk about books? The Internet’s social aspects are now obvious, and the chance to talk about books – and trade them – with others online seems limitless. The New York Times has an article on book social networks and how you can form your own library online, share it with others and trade books, CDs and DVDs, on sites such as BookMooch, WhatsOnMyBookShelf and SwapTree.com. You can read the New York Times article.
Books available in electronic formats is another manifestation of the Internet. E-books are getting more popular because dedicated electronic “readers” have better battery life and are less expensive. But with a $5 used paperback, you still don’t have to worry about stuffing it in a pack or getting it a little wet, as opposed to a handheld PC or iPod. And you can give away a book or trade it in; e-books and downloaded audio books, on the other hand, can be limited to your own reader due to what’s called digital rights management, which prevents transferring or copying files to protect copyrights.
Some of the biggest high-tech book news is the ability to search full texts on the Web at Google Books. What doesn’t Google do anymore? You also can download the full text of some out-of-copyright books that aren’t DRM-protected from Google and Project Gutenberg, which predated Google a number of years.
Which brings us to one of the not-so-good aspects of the intersection of technology and books: intellectual property rights. Many e-books are traded illegally using peer-to-peer software such as BitTorrent (don’t ask me – ask your local teenager), and the DRM protection can be broken. How much money are publishers losing to book pirating? Even that’s controversial, but the book industry says billions of dollars.
Google Books also is under fire for scanning books still under copyright, although the full text is not available right away. This “privatization” of libraries is suspect, according to a report in the New York Times that describes how some libraries are going with more open solutions to online access of entire books.
Overall, the book industry is rebounding after sales fell for a few years running. In 2006, there were almost 300,000 books published in the United States. Bricks-and-mortar retailers took a hit from online sales, but even stores such as the Book Exchange and Shakespeare and Co. have been able to expand recently.
There’s no substitute for books – and the communities, readings and writers – in real life. I still go to local libraries weekly to hunt through the shelves, and I check on new books in stores once or twice a month. Though I shop the Web for book deals and read book reviews online, I almost always check them out of the library or buy them locally.
For me, books still belong on a shelf to be perused and read. That might be old fashioned, but that’s OK.