Friday, February 24, 2012

Books Online or Online Books?

  I have mentioned in the past that I do some voluntary work in a large warehouse that processes secondhand books for several bookfairs a year to raise funds for the charity Lifeline, a telephone counselling service. All the books are donated by members of the public in Canberra (which is, of course, the capital city of Australia). Naturally, current changes to the way books are published and read is a perennial topic of discussion among the volunteers, as this affects our bottom line. It has occurred to me that there is a distinct time lag between technological changes to books and the concept of a book.
   Because we receive unselected donations, we cannot sell all the books. Some are too decrepit or damaged, too out of date or simply appear in too many duplicates, so some books have to go to paper recycling. This upsets some people, as it seems that they still have a mindset that a modern printed book is like a medieval manuscript; a unique artifact and repository of knowledge. Most, in fact, are mass produced items of the industrial age. Everybody does keep a look out for books that are rare or especially interesting, so that they get special treatment.
  Now that e-books are infiltrating the world of reading, we wonder what effect this will have on the buying public. There are those among us who use our e-book readers for certain purposes, in my personal case for recreational reading, but who are definitely not abandoning our reference libraries of real books any time soon. The likes of and ABE books have increased our personal reference libraries of real books through online sales. On the other hand, Google books and The Internet Archive have expanded our reference collections to include old and rare titles that we would otherwise find very difficult to acquire. Some folks feel that a book should have a cover and pages, just like a medieval manuscript. Others are coming to the idea of a book as a concept; a bounded body of information or themes or ideas, even if it does not exist as a thing.
  Our bookfair is moving with the times by introducing online sales of real books (Lifeline Canberra Online Bookstore). It is just at the beginning of operations so far and the number of books is currently limited, but we hope it will grow to cater for the internet savvy crowd who still like real pages. That might keep us going until somebody works out how to sell used conceptual books in the form of secondhand e-books.
  We also sell music in the form of records and CDs. One lady dropped us off a whole box full of CDs, saying her husband didn't need them any more as he had ripped them all to his iPod. My first thought was, hang on, don't you keep the CDs as backups? I guess I think of musical performances as objects rather than concepts, and musical performance objects have only been around for about one hundred years, unlike reading objects. Now there is a thought for further philosophical rumination.

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