Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Expressing a typically (for the ALA) utopian perspective, a writer for ALA TechSource attempts to draw an analogy between the growth of ebooks and the history of shaving in a posting titled "A Close Shave." Under ordinary circumstances I would summarize the article's contents, but it has significant humor value and is worth partially reproducing:

"When personal computers first hit the mainstream, they presented an interesting opportunity for libraries. All of [a] sudden, it was possible to easily separate the content from the content-bearing device. Unlike printed books, microfilm, LP records, and other content-bearing devices, with computers it is easy to move content onto and off of the device...Portable computing devices, such as the PDA and MP3 player, ran with this concept of separating the content from the content-bearing device. The apotheosis to date may be the portable eReading device, which allows you to purchase and download a book in less than a minute from most places.

Let's consider an analogy. In the good old days, when men wanted a shave, they often went to a barber shop. As far as I can tell, it was a bundled, one-price service. The barber charged one price for the complete process of shaving the customer. With that one price, the barber had to cover all his costs: straightedge razor, strop, cream, hot water, towel, rent, chair, lights, heat, his time, etc.

Then along came the safety razor and the social shift to shaving at home...This probably was a considerable convenience to most men, and it may have been more economical, but notice that it also unbundled the components of shaving. Now men had to purchase the shaving handle, the disposable razor blades, and shaving cream...usually separately. The towels, hot water, light, and heat were separate purchases too. Over time, electric razors...added to the growing list of unbundled face-shaving options."

(Source: "A Close Shave,"

By contrast, the Librarian in Black avoids the history of depilatory practices and launches right in to her own detailed experiement with e-book use, relating her prolonged frustrated efforts to make use of her library's ebook collection. In the time it took her to discover the multiple mutual incompatibilities between her various devices and e-book supplier digital resource management systems, she could have read the first half of War and Peace.

I was especially interested to read her post not only because it provides a rare, critical perspective on e-books, but also because I've had similar frustrations attempting to use e-books at various libraries. It's worth your time to read her account, because it expresses in clear detail the problems that make library e-book collections so frustrating to use. Librarians, take note. As usual, we need to demand more from vendors and content-providers. In the words of the great Tim Gunn, "Just make it work!"

And if you don't read any of this, do yourself a favor and look at this cartoon depiction of the ninth circle of ebook download hell... because a picture really does paint a thousand words and it applies to so many types of program-download experiences. Everyone can relate.

I won't create a spoiler by revealing the ultimate source of download salvation for the cartoon's hero, but let's just say that it doesn't, unfortunately, involve a library. (And no, BitTorrent is not a library.)

The truth can be painful, but Librarian in Black does it well for this topic.

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