At a dinner party recently after I revealed the fact that I was a software developer for a Library Management System the person asked me what I felt the future of books was. Their interest was primarily in respect to what impact ebook readers like the Kindle might have to libraries and books.
Well this is a pretty open ended question and I would like to divide this into numerous topic areas. Although this blog post will only scratch the surface I am hopeful it will emphasis that it is a much more diverse future pattern than many "death of the library" posts are suggesting.
I feel the main areas for discussion in terms of libraries and ebooks are as follows; Fiction versus non-fiction, public versus private libraries, technology change in respect to electronic reading devices, first world versus the rest of the world, reference versus study material.
Fiction versus non-fiction
If we look at current ebook sales, verses physical copy sales we see and interesting fact, that as of 2011 non-fiction literature saw a rise in the US in terms of sales and fiction works saw a reduction in sales. I am not privy to all of the statistical analysis however, looking at the headline figures it appears that the current short-term trends are to non-fiction being purchased in physical books, where as fiction works are increasingly being sold through the medium of ebook.
This is perhaps backed up by studies that suggest that the Kindle is not an appropriate learning add due to the difficulty to make notes in text and to quickly refer to. Now the Kindle's technical short comings versus a book I will discuss a little later, but currently the physical book is in many ways superior to the electronic version for non-fiction materials which is reflected in the sales figures.
Public versus private
Public libraries have a split focus between non-fiction and fiction works, where as private institutions have a focus on non-fiction works, so this electronic fiction trend is likely to have a larger impact on the public libraries initially than public libraries who are likely to need to maintain physical stocks for longer and in large amounts.
Technology change in respect to electronic reading devices
As mentioned studies suggest that the Kindle is not good enough to replace the humble book. The book technology has many advantages. However, much like the scroll has been replaced by the book, I suspect that technological innovation will make the electronic medium superior in practically all facets, and once it is quicker to navigate, clearer to read, battery life is a non-issue then physical books. How long will this take? Well manufactures are bringing folding tablets to the market in 2011/2012, affordable colour e-ink has been on the horizon for a while, foldable / rollable OLED screens look like they are not too far away from production. All of this suggests to me that in less than 5 years there will be devices which people will consider generally superior to books. This to my mind will have a dramatic impact on physical book sales and you will probably see a similar trend to music with an 8% fall in sales year on year.
First world versus the rest of the world
OK £150 for an e-book reader and a few books is "cheap" for a well off first worlder, but libraries that lend books are the only way that the relatively impoverished will have access to good quality material for some time to come. With public libraries decreasing in the first world I expect the reverse trend (at least for some time) in the rest of the world.
Reference versus study material
Now another trend from my own reading which I feel will be felt across the non-fiction world is the reference versus study material. The internet makes it very easy to find lots of diverse material and quickly look up facts figures etc. However, currently I does not yet provide great study guide material. Books are still superior in this respect. You can pick up and authoritative book and the author will have distilled a set of information relevant to the topic for you to get a good broad appreciation of the subject. This is currently difficult to achieve on the internet as it is difficult to search for information you do not know. Once you have developed a broad appreciation for a topic then you can readily use the internet for reference purposes or to further explorer topics you were made aware of in your study guide.
Now the internet's linked nature does mean that it can develop towards providing study guide information, but published works still have this arrow in their quiver in the hunt for public interest.
Actually this study guide advantage I feel has been exploited in publishing, IT reference materials have become much more study guide oriented and much less reference manual. I feel this is a good thing, because after I am aware of a concept if I need to use it again I can quickly find all of the information on the internet much faster than in a reference manual, but again if I am unaware of the concept in the first place how do I search for it...
Other other elephant in the room
Unfortunately publisher and their ebook distribution / subscription methods will affect the speed and nature of change over time. They are currently adopting a method of treating an ebook much like a physical copy, with limited access, expiration (wearing out) periods etc. I am not sure that model will be sustainable and I suspect new platforms will evolve altering the book/library landscape significantly over time.
Hopefully I have distilled the fact that this is a relatively complex arena with competing pressures. I do suspect that technology will have a major impact on our learning structures, cognitive science research is constantly developing new teaching and learning techniques, but I suspect that eventually we will be able to download knowledge and a vastly different society will develop from this.