The Future of the Book in the Digital Age (an excerpt from College Services magazine)
August 22, 2012 | 11:30 am
Editor’s Note: Published quarterly by the National Association of College Auxiliary Services (NACAS), College Services magazine is one of the most intelligently-produced trade publications you’ve probably never heard of.
In fact, we weren’t even aware of it ourselves until very recently, when a fascinating feature story about the future of textbooks in the digital age came across our radar. The article’s author, Ioan Sucia, graciously gave us permission to republish his article, although we’ve chosen instead to post a medium-length excerpt.
At the end of this post, you’ll find a link that will take you to the digital edition of College Services’ Spring 2012 issue, where you can read the remainder of the story if you wish.
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THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK IN THE DIGITAL AGE: How technology is threatening the future of university libraries and academic publishers
By Ioan Sucia
The future of the university library is up in the air, literally in the cloud. At a time when cloud computing and digital distributions are on the rise, academic publishers and some of the nation’s biggest booksellers have been slow to adapt.
The most recent bankruptcy filing by Borders is the latest example. Booksellers and lenders risk sliding into obscurity as digital editions become ubiquitious.
University libraries, with their vast collections and back catalogs, are a critical link in the academic publishing cycle and the distribution of scholarly writing. Without them, the integrity and availability of textbooks, research articles, reference texts and other scholarly texts may be threatened.
The very shape and nature of textbooks is transforming. “The trend away from reading long-form works will continue,” explained Alan Harvey, Editor-in-Chief of Stanford University Press. “The challenge for scholarly publishers is going to be to find a way to repackage their content in different, more appealing forms.”
Transition From Print to Digital Textbooks
Something unexpected happened at the Cleveland Park branch of the District of Columbia Public Library last year: they ran out of books for a growing segment of their customers. In the days following what some called the “iPad Christmas,” hundreds of new iPad owners turned to the library for content to view on their new devices. Despite more than 12,000 e-book titles in its collection, “the system does not currently have the funding to fully meet this demand,” explained Debra Shumate, Branch Manager of the Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library.
This is bad news for university libraries.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, tablet and e-reader use doubled among 18- to 29-year-olds last year in a trend that is predicted to accelerate. “In my opinion, demand for popular materials will push electronic books forward, enhancing the adoption of academic materials in this format,” said Shumate.
This illustrates a paradox in digital publishing. While it takes investment to transition to a fully digital collection, waiting for the demand curve may lead to failure for academic publishers, especially when the popularity of new devices creates new niche markets overnight and allows outside organizations to fill this need.
Digital books are not a new invention, with some placing the genesis 40 years ago with Michael S. Hart’s Project Gutenberg, which created the first “e-book” in the world, The United States Declaration of Independence.
In today’s society, not just teachers and students are leading the change to digital textbooks; politicians are pushing the boundaries as well. In California, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced an initiative in the summer of 2009 that would replace some textbooks with free, “open source” digital versions. President Obama has proposed investing in the digital age and creating free online courses—pledging to “bring high-speed wireless Internet to 98 percent of Americans within the next five years,” and enabling students to take classes with the digital textbook.”
While it is highly unlikely that printed books will completely disappear anytime in the near future, their role in higher education could diminish much more quickly than expected.