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Oddly, it's a failure of modern devices to adapt to electronic content. For books, this means that your reader needs to comply with one or more of these formats: EPUB, Kindle, PDF, Plucker, QiOO Mobile, and Plain Text. (This is based on the file selection for texts from Project Gutenberg.)
But paper adapts fantastically. We have paperback, hardcover, oversize books, pamphlets, large print books, tiny pocket books, spiral bound books, weird font books, picture and board books, smooth glossy photographs, textured pages, braille, deckle edges, ... pretty much any form that paper can take can be used to display print and images.
Can I fit a large format world atlas in your iPad? Not without losing the entire perspective of the area. Sure, you can zoom in with any level of detail or scale or at any angle, but does a 30" map really work better on a 6" x 9" screen?
Digital is restrictive. Ironically, when it comes to sharing, electrons are rigid and paper is fluid.
There is no device-neutrality in the digital world. At some point a format will win, but we know that the format won't be paper. Paper ushered into our lives a glorious renaissance of knowledge where all who could decipher printed symbols could share in its bounty. But digital steals that back, and now each of us will be forever bound to DRM or download access or apps or wifi or device preferences or licensing restrictions or TOS or some other thing that will deny us the pleasures of access or the joys of collaboration. For with all the freedom that digital promises, we will be alone, isolated by and prisoners of our machines.
Sure, you can strip off corporate digital protections and share your data, but not with everyone. Not everyone will risk breaking the law, or risk civil punishment after some user of illegally downloaded texts is made an example of, and fined $2 million for sharing. Do you think your grandma is going to download from illegal torrents?
Before paper (or papyrus or clay or whatever), there was no recorded information. We had to remember. Before video tape, there was no replaying Super Bowl XX whenever I wanted it. And no Freebie and the Bean. Before 8-track or cassettes, how could you express your feelings to that kid in your English class if you couldn't create a mix tape? Sing? Do you really think you can hit those Steve Perry high notes on "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'"? You're just kidding yourself.
Libraries have been lucky. But unfortunately, the digital era is only another form of the dark ages where someone will find some way to deprive us of information. I don't know about you, but I can't control the flow of information. I don't own a cell phone tower or an Internet thingie that would keep the data moving if the government or some company decided to cut it off.
But I have books. Which I own and can lend. However I want.
Last week, David Rothman had an essay in The Atlantic on why we need a national digital library. And because I believe America should create one (although I'm convinced we never will), I started a group on Facebook for supporters to join. But I still don't think our capitalistic society could support a national digital library. I don't think publishers want this and I don't think authors want it. Can you imagine if JK Rowling chose to keep her books from being available in America if it meant she had to turn over digital copies (which is what a national digital library would require in order to succeed) that could then be downloaded by anyone, royalty-free (or at reduced rates)? She doesn't even have Kindle versions of her Harry Potter books, why would she allow free versions to be published?
I know that the promise of a digital world evokes images of each of us with unlimited access to the total history of human thought. But it doesn't. It might, if you can afford all the toys it will take for access and if you can tolerate or avoid all the licenses. But the digital world is a cage that will grow smaller as the years pass. You will look back at the early part of this century as a golden age when all was free for the taking. But it won't last. It's like drugs; the first taste is always free until you're hooked.
The people who are promoting ebooks are probably not even considering the cost. They probably think the government should just buy 100 million Nooks and give them away to all of us and that would make the country a better and wiser place. And we could raise all the money to pay for them by closing all the libraries.
We have moved into the digital, restrictive, inequitable era, downloadable and viewable on demand for 48 hours, for $1-$10. It you want enlightenment, it will cost you.