E-Library: Electronic or Ephemeral?

My technical and professional library is a strange beast. Part Computer Science, part graphic design, part fiction, it’s made up of new books, books I had in Uni, books that I have inherited from other academics and books that I salvaged from libraries before they disappeared. But, of course, there is a new and growing section of my library, which you can’t see on the shelves – my E-Library. I realised that, this week, I now have started an E-Library collection that grows on a monthly basis as I add more content. I shall use the term eBooks for the rest of this post, but I’m not referring to a specific format – it’s just the digitised and electronically transferable image of a book that I’m concerned with.

Why am I buying eBooks? Because they arrive within minutes. I talk about this from a student perspective in tomorrow’s main post but, for me, I buy physical+electronic where I can because I will end up with a copy that I can use right now and a copy that I can add to my physical library.

When I am gone, or when I retire, my professional library will be stripped for those things that will be kept, by me or my wife, and the rest will go out into the corridor, onto a table, for the rest of my colleagues and students to pick through. The remainder will probably be offered to a school, as the main library is not really interested in my 1950s Engineering texts. But what of texts that only exist in the Ephemeral Library? There are so many questions about this form of my library:

  1. Will I even be able to transfer all of my books? I buy mostly from suppliers who allow me to legitimately transfer the electronic copies but there are some of my books that are locked to my identity or my machine.
  2. How will I advertise them? Put up a webpage with a download link? That immediately breaches most publishers restrictions. Asking people to register their interest and then provide it to them takes effort and, most likely, means that it will be a low priority.
  3. Will the formats that I am buying today be a working format in 30 years time? We have a tendency to think in the now, forgetting that 78s are gone, 8-track is gone, cassette is mostly gone and vinyl is more fringe oriented than mainstream these days. Beta is buried deep in the ground with VHS buried just above it. The physical formats are being obliterated in the face of the relentless march of digitised containers but, remember, standards change and, worse, standards evolve within the standards themselves. At some stage BluRay X will break BluRay 1.2, most likely. In the same way, PDF 22 may lose the ability to handle earlier versions. Backwards compatibility is a grand goal but, time and again, we have eventually abandoned it on the argument that it is no longer necessary.
  4. Will I maintain the burden of updating my media to make sure that 3 doesn’t happen? How much spare time do you have?
  5. Finally, what happens when I die? I don’t think I’m allowed to transfer my iTunes account details to my wife – so over 260 songs will, at some stage, disappear from our shared iPods. The same for my library. Suddenly, books disappear. Possibly books that have not been published for years and will never be published again. Gutenberg dies and all of his Bibles spontaneously combust? Not the most robust model.

Obviously, part of the whole management process that will have to be recognised is the difference between renting, leasing and owning a digital property. If we are actually going to own things, and most people think that they own things but would be surprised if they read the fine print, we have to come up with a form of identity management that allows transfer of property to occur across legally recognisable lines. One can only hope that we’ve sorted out the simple things like child rearing, marriage, hospital visitation and social security access before we attempt to push through a global, trans-corportate, persistent rights management system that allows us to keep our collections together, even after we die.