Monday, December 13, 2010

How much an ebook holds may not be the right question

I posted a timeline that Microsoft created in 2000 that made predictions about the growth of ebooks over the next 20 years. The prediction for 2010 was: Popular eBook devices weigh eight ounces, run for more than 24 hours, offer beautiful non-backlit displays, are available in flexible/foldable form factors, and hold more books and magazines than most university libraries. They cost less than $100 and are often given away free with the purchase of several books or a magazine subscription.

At they posted a link to my blog post about the Microsoft timeline. In the comments section on Teleread there was this comment: They’re in the ballpark if you use weight and battery life as yardstick. Storage capacity is a horse of a different stripe – boy, were they ever *way* off on that one !

The prediction by Microsoft was that by 2010 ebooks would hold more books and magazines than most university libraries.

There can be some debate about the amount of books in "most university libraries" but from the initial numbers that I have seen university libraries have from 500,000 to a million books. Larger university collections have 2-3 million books. Because we are looking at "most" university libraries we will use the 500,000 number for this discussion. If you go to Amazon they show 557,158 nonfiction ebooks and 241,067 fiction ebooks. The sum of fiction and nonfiction is 798,225 ebooks. One of the first nonfiction books that is displayed on Amazon was a word game for the Kindle. The 798,225 number is going to be high because of Amazon games for the Kindle and duplicate titles and other issues that winnow down the actual count. Trying to be conservative let us assume that the count is off by 200,000. That leaves us with 598,225 ebooks that are available for download to a Kindle. If you have a 3G Kindle you effectively have access within minutes to any of these 598,000 ebooks. In that regard the Microsoft prediction was correct.
I wanted to discuss the comment about what ebooks could hold to get to a larger issue. I think the larger issue is whether people can afford to get to those 598,000 books. Who cares how much your ebook can store if you cannot afford to buy enough ebooks to fill it? The current Kindle will hold around 1500 ebooks in internal memory.  To fill that memory you are going to have to spend around $15,000. 
One of the dangers of ebooks is that people fall for the myth that they are carrying a library when they are carrying an ebook reader. The danger of this is that when people feel they have their own library they no longer feel it is necessary to support their local library. When city and state budgets get tight they say "I have a library in my Kindle. I don't want to pay anymore taxes so lets get rid of the library." The problem is whether the person really has access to as much as they did when they had a physical library to go to? 
I don't bring up this point to demonize ebooks. I bring this up to remind people to honestly assess how much information they actually have access to with an ebook reader. They have as much access as they can afford to purchase. (Granted I am excluding books in the public domain. But many times you need to purchase those also. See: Why Get It Free on Gutenberg When You Can Buy It on Kindle?)
The technology is in place to allow us to have a national digital library. We really need a robust national digital library. If not national maybe we need robust state digital libraries. Underlying idea is that if people want to read and learn the limits should be on how much time they have to read and how much they want to learn not by how much money is in their pocket. I realize this is somewhat pollyannish utopian socialist talk but there are times when we have to reach for big ideas.
Here are two recent articles about that topic. One of them is by David Rothman who founded Teleread.
Why We Can't Afford Not to Create a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System
Can We Create a National Digital Library?

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