Archive for August, 2006

Is Reading Doomed?

Educator Michael Skube pushes the familiar complaint that “kids don’t read for pleasure” any more – Writing Off Reading in today’s Washington Post (via TeleRead). While characteristically anecdotal, articles like these frankly scare me.
David Rothman ties this in to his plea to libraries not to divert book acquisition budgets to video in a major way, and I’m sympathetic to his argument. As a parent of two young boys, I really worry about the precipitous decline in pleasure reading after age 8 that has been documented as largely a boy issue.
But I’m not sure what the real picture is. I’m just guessing that a drop off in reading (and other solo entertainments) as kids get older and take on more independence and do more social activities (including video watching) is not an entirely new phenomenon. So does the U.S. really have fewer readers than in the past? Are there really lower levels of advanced literacy, or is our much higher percentage of college attendance skewing the historical perspective? In the 65 years since 1940 the U.S. has gone from less than 10% of the population having some college education to over 50% – by definition college students are no longer an “elite”. And it’s arguable that all the IM’ing and MySpace’ing is increasing literacy among students, vs. the hours-long phone calls of recent generations. Is the increase in video lending by libraries coming at the expense of book circulations, or are they primarily just a tax-subsidized alternative to Blockbuster, which in turn is competing with movie theaters, not reading? Hard data on these points appears to be scarce.
My oldest son recently turned 9 so after all these posts I had to run and check his room. J.R.R. Tolkien, Brian Jacques, and Cornelia Funke may not be Booker Prize winners but I was frankly relieved to see their works strewn out on his bed. It’s equally anecdotal but as long as he and his friends keep reading for pleasure – and well above any preconceived notion of “grade level” – I can’t help but remain somewhat positive about the future of reading. And while digital texts may not change the fundamental options competing for Jackson’s time (and I feel a bit guilty for having watched Raiders of the Lost Ark with him last night), they might at least help keep his bedroom a bit neater…

Mass Digitization and the Public Interest

In Google ‘Showtimes’ The UC Library System, Jeff Ubois cogently covers many of the concerns that have been bothering me about the Google Book Search libraries initiative, especially the lack of transparency in the secret deals made between those funding scanning projects and libraries, deals that could – perversely – lead to restricted access by the public to digitized print works. The article also is an excellent summary of the state of mass digitization. My only quibble is that as far as I can tell Google is far from alone in this behavior – Microsoft MSN’s deals with British Library and others are also secretive and are rumored to contain similar exclusivity clauses. Ubois focuses on Google, seemingly giving others a free pass thanks to their participation in the Open Content Alliance – yet in some cases the OCA may be little more than a smokescreen for equivalent “digital works land grab” attempts.
The key question raised in Ubois’ article: “Can anyone else build services that access this data? Or is it another case of ‘Google can crawl everyone else’s data, no one can crawl Google’s data?'”..

Amazon and eBooks: “Company Store”?

An interesting post today on TeleRead by Michael Banks speculates on where Amazon’s new efforts in eBooks could potentially lead. Michael makes some good points. He didn’t highlight that Amazon is actually taking a two-pronged approach: DRM-protected eBooks via its proprietary Mobipocket technology, and browser-based access via the evolution of “Look Inside the Book” into “Amazon Upgrade”. Both solutions could potentially give Amazon a chokehold over user access to content, by virtue of proprietary binary format on the one hand, and a lockbox “in the cloud” (Amazon’s cloud) on the other..
Amazon has an unparalleled customer base of online-savvy book buyers and publishers. I respect Dan Rose and the team there, and hopefully they will see the light of day that trying to gain proprietary lock-in over customers and publishers is going to be a self-defeating strategy. Apple has gotten away with it so far in music, but that’s a much narrower market and Apple had the advantage of surprise over music publishers that Amazon most assuredly does not over book publishers. Open standards and interoperability are going to be necessary for digital reading to be broadly adopted, so hopefully Amazon will get past NIH and step up to helping to achieve these objectives. Their recent joining of the IDPF was a promising step. Amazon is also under financial pressure to improve earnings which hopefully could lead to focus on their core competency – selling – rather than promotion of a proprietary platform.