Will E-Books Stifle Progress With Literacy?

Christopher Mims says e-books build barriers to cheap access to the written word, while Stephen Downes disagrees — and argues that open access is the future.

Although one of the positive aspects of the digitization of our world is an increased access to information – Wikipedia, anyone? – Christopher Mims, writing for Technology Review, believes that the slow but steady growth of the e-book market is putting up a barrier to learning, especially for financially disadvantaged people who depend on libraries for their reading needs. Once purchased, electronic books cannot be either loaned or sold second-hand, and most publishers even limit the number of times a library can loan out a book. Furthermore, in order to read ebooks, a consumer must purchase a rather expensive secondary device which might prove to be a hurdle too high for poor kids to overcome.

Public libraries are considered a vital resource, which is why, Mims reminds us, they are funded by taxpayer dollars. With the recent announcement of agreement between libraries and Amazon that will allow Kindle owners to borrow books for the first time, it seems all but inevitable that ebooks will make up a large chunk of a libraries’ catalogs in the future. What Mims doesn’t clearly explain is why that would be a bad thing. Though he writes longingly of the first experience of discovering a book, a tactile memory of running fingers over the worn spines or being handed a ragged paperback by a beloved relative, he ends up trading nostalgia for an actual argument. It isn’t for nothing that his piece is subtitled “Could Abraham Lincoln have become president of the United States in a world in which poor children lack access to physical books?” Harking back to one of the most famous of American stories of “a poor boy makes good,” will surely resonate with almost any American reader.

Almost. Stephen Downes seems entirely unconvinced. If Mims’ point is that ebooks will restrict people’s access to information, Downes thinks exactly the opposite. He argues that ebooks will allow greater access in part because their proliferation will lower costs of storing and preserving paper books. Projects like the Community Access Point will allow anyone possessing an internet-enabled reader to get access to countless books online. All of this, according to Downes, for a price of that it would have cost Lincoln to purchase just a single book.

Don’t be fooled by the publishers’ last-gasp locked-down ebooks. They aren’t the future. Open (or at least, very inexpensive) access is.

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