The Long Hall in Trinity College Dublin is less a Library and more a museum. You would need a good head for heights to work here; the mezzanine structure gives a whole new meaning to ‘books on the top shelf.’
It’s sad but I believe books have had their day. Just as monastic scribes gave way to the printing press, so books are becoming digital and the Kindle will be spoken of alongside Gutenburg in the history of communication. We will tell grandchildren about a place called a Library, where we borrowed real books then took them back and borrowed some more; if we were late we had to pay a fine and in a Library you didn’t talk, you were quiet. It was a contemplative place, a bit like a church, only they’re going out of fashion too. Today, Trinity College Library occupies that space between utility and relic. Visiting the Library is tagged onto seeing the Book of Kells and neither are free. Prepaying 9 euros over the Internet makes no difference to the system. You still need a ticket with a barcode. One of many things the Internet can’t do is remove the need to queue.
The Book of Kells, four illuminated Gospel manuscripts, offers a tangible link with the past but you can’t touch it. Over 1200 years old, it represents a heritage from a different age. What were once valuable and rare sources of communication are now even more so. The Book of Kells lies behind glass in a darkened room, no photographs please, a symbol of a different age when access to what passed as knowledge was limited to church and state. Today we take such access for granted but the nature of the book itself is changing; the idea of an individual volume in your hand is being replaced with a digital reader containing multiple volumes downloaded from the Internet. The Public Library is under threat and not just because of government cuts to front line services. We need to take care because the any-time any-where, instant gratification of digital data comes at a cost.
We need to hold onto our memories of libraries; shafts of sunlight in dusty reading rooms, the card index catalogue, the shelf upon shelf of hardbacks, some borrowed frequently, some never at all, the escape from the noise of the traffic and the bustle of the High Street with the promise of further escape into literature. Humankind has always loved stories.
The Internet is enabling a dangerous social shift. As we moved from oral to print traditions, so the move from analogue to digital culture risks the loss of what was once valued. Books are more than artifacts – they are a symbol of our times. They represent the communication of ideas and without ideas we are nothing. We need to hold onto what matters. Letting go of books is to let go of more than we might realize.
The recent publicity over the Amazon e-book reader Kindle is notable for the furore over DRM and the lack of publicity over its inaccessibility. Reams are being written about Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) the digital watermark which limits the use of downloaded files and gives the content provider control over what happens to the content. There’s two ways of looking at this. Firstly it protects copyright by preventing unlicensed copying and distribution (ensuring profits for publishers) and secondly publishers are stepping over the mark by imposing ‘rights’ as ‘restrictions’ that are more extensive then the existing copyright laws for non-digitised text. Unauthorized distribution of digital media has been almost impossible to control and the ebook industry is tackling this from the start; looking at the much pirated music and film industry for guidance.
I have no problem with this ongoing debate. What concerns me is the way in which profits are in the driving seat. The voice of those unable to read the e-book screen is scarely being heard but their access is being denied when ebooks could make a huge difference to quality of life. Blind people use computers – get used to it. Digital data has the potential to transform communication and offer access to information for everyone not just those with eyes to see. The BBC have published three short video clips about e-book readers in the past two weeks and not one mentions access issues.
The lack of media interest in this blatant continuation of discrimination is appalling.
In reply to THES Librarians desperate for e-books
Generic comments like “They [e-books] don’t get stolen, they don’t get their pages ripped out and they are always available when people want them.” demonstrate the ME-Model – a computer user with Mouse and Eyes who often fails to think about those with neither. Availability is not the same as access and even if Digital Britain’s aim for equal broadband access is realised then this access will always be more equal for some than for others.
The technology used to digitise is only half the story. E-books require an appropriate means of reading them. All too often access is obstructed by the very same technologies used in their creation. Chickens and eggs come to mind. We operate in a sighted world where designers assume the user is seeing rather than listening. With effective screen reading software, digital data has the potential to widen participation and crack open some of the barriers to knowledge acquisition. In reality the technology that enables also disables. There can be nothing more frustrating than knowing the text may well be “available anywhere and anytime” but it can only be seen and not heard.
In June I blogged about the barriers ebooks present for visually impaired users. This post focuses on e-book readers. The synergy should be obvious. Download an e-book onto an e-book reader and listen. But no, no, no… it simply doesn’t work like that.
Amazon have a vested interest in cornering the digital text market; their first e-book reader, Kindle, came out in 2008. There was no text-to-speech facility but Kindle2, launched in February 2009, put this right. So far, so good.
Then, in an astonishing act of discrimination, the Author’s Guild declared this was infringment of copyright unless the copyright holder had specifically granted permission. Amazon’s response was a modification allowing authors and the six publishers supplying books to Kindle to have the text-to-speech turned off. The Reading Rights Coalition (RRC), the National Federation of the Blind, the Author’s Guild and Amazon became locked in battle over an issue that should never have arisen in the first place. Plus not only was there the issue over copyright, ut problems for blind people with using the e-reader independently suggested Amazon failed to test their product with equality and diversity in mind.
The Amazon US Kindle site currently says: “Read-to-Me: With the new text-to-speech feature, Kindle can read every newspaper, magazine, blog, and book out loud to you, unless the book’s rights holder made the feature unavailable.”
In the UK there are a number of e-book readers currently on the market, but none that seem to address this issue. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I looked on Sony’s e-book site and could find no mention of listening to text should you be unable to see it. The digital divide seems to be going in totally the wrong direction; further away than ever from ensuring the rights of the visually impaired to have equal access to digital data.