Libraries: Expanding Print Text to the Digital World

The other day a student came into the library looking for a copy of a literary classic. I pulled a copy off the shelf, excited to get a requested book into the hands of a young reader. I couldn’t help but notice, however, the tiny print and the yellowed, discolored pages. I thought to myself, “I’d rather read this book on a clean computer screen.”

A lightbulb switched on in my bibliophile brain.

projectgutenbergMany works in the public domain (no longer under copyright law) are freely distributed online. One site that has been invaluable for educators and students is Project Gutenberg, which offers more than 40,000 free ebooks for download in Kindle, epub, pdf, or html format.

The student happened to have her Macbook with her, so I showed her how search for the book at Project Gutenberg, highlight the html text, and copy it into a Word document to save on her computer. The entire book was on her laptop in less than a minute. When she opened the book on her laptop, her face lit up. She was happy to see that not only could she change the background color of the page, but she could also adjust the font size and text typography of the work, using the “highlight” and “comment” feature in Word to make notes as she read the book. She also noted how to decrease the light on the computer screen to make it easier on her eyes. Best of all? The book was hers to keep: no need to return it to the library.

Check out Project Gutenberg, which offers free, digital books that were previously published by bona fide publishers. Here you can find books by Dickens, Dumas, Oscar Wilde, Thoreau, Ibsen, Kipling, Agatha Christie, the Bronte sisters, Sophocles, The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci (without illustrations, unfortunately), the Works of Edgar Allen Poe, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and even the illustrated version of Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”.

When downloading ebooks, I suggest making a folder to keep your collection handy, easy-to find, and easy-to-manage. In addition, iPad/iPhone apps such as Kindle, Kobo, and iBooks allow some free ebooks to be read on hand-held devices. Kindle offers access across platforms such as iPod, iTouch, iPad, iPhone, Macs, Blackberries and Androids.

In the end, the yellowed paperback was put back on the shelf. It felt strange to encourage a student not to read a print copy of a library book. But since part of the mission of our library is to “promote the life-long habit of reading”, I couldn’t help but think that connecting our students to the wide array of online options is a way of preparing them for the world-wide trend of moving books from print to digital form. E-books don’t replace the traditional library collection of print books. Instead, they enrich the collection, adding a vibrant and dynamic way to encourage young readers to access books in an environment that they are comfortable navigating.

It behooves us all, especially those of us in love with the printed page of a hardbound book, to be open to new options. After all, our job isn’t to educate our students for our past, but to prepare them for their future. Like or not, digital books are not only future; they are the present.

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“Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming” by Neil Gaiman

“I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a words mattershelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something.” – Neil Gaiman

Read more in the The Guardian’s “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming”