What’s a Real Book?

While I was at Computers in Libraries 2010, I listened to David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States (he gave one of the keynotes at the conference). During his interview (Paul Holdengraber from New York Public Library interviewed him), he was talking about books and what he likes to read … and mentioned that he prefers print books over ebooks (he likes the aesthetics of paper books).

That’s fine – I get that.

But then, the audience … at Computers in Libraries … applauded! Like he’d just won an award or something. And soon after, someone tweeted “Yeah! David Ferriero still reads REAL books!”


Help me out here – what’s the most important part of a book – the paper? Or the stuff on the paper? Anyone?

Do authors really think about paper when writing books (I know I didn’t when I wrote my book)? Most likely not. Instead, they’re thinking about the next twist in the story, or how to adequately describe that next thought.

Does anyone applaud when someone says “I still watch Super 8 movies?” How about if someone said “I still love reading print journals?” Nope. No applause there. No one would tweet “Yay! He still reads REAL journals!”

When I read something, here’s what I care about:

  • getting sucked into the story (with fiction)
  • learning something new or interesting (with non fiction)
  • being entertained and engaged (with both)

For me, this happens via paper, my iPhone, my computer, an audio book, an ebook reader, or online. I’m guessing you’re reading just fine right now.

So my point? I think it’s time for us librarians to get over our paper fetish.

Content and container – the two are really, truly, different. Books are stories or a largish chunk of non-fiction text – novels, biographies, histories, etc. The format or container? This tends to change (though it hasn’t in a long time).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying books are bad. I’m also not saying print is bad. But I am saying that when lots of people applaud someone … at a conference dedicated to computers and the web … for favoring one container over another, it shows our bias, it shows our professional bent … and that bent needs to be adapting and growing and watching the horizon.

pic by Adrian

  • Rosario Garza

    Totally agree with you. I read ebooks almost exclusively now. Why? I can download them from my public library or I can go online & purchase them very easily. Don't have to spend time going to a physical library or a physical book store if I want a new title. In fact, I'm re-reading on my all-time favorites right now & thinking that I should buy an ebook version of it since my paperback is falling apart!

  • http://www.colleenscommentary.net/ Colleen Greene

    I wholeheartedly agree with you, David! Thanks for the post.

    I've been hooked on reading/listening to ebooks and digital audiobooks via my mobile devices for years — particularly once southern California public libraries started offering Overdrive. I can download 24/7 from home/work and now directly through my Droid phone. I love the convenience, I love being able to append notes to “pages”, and I love being able to pack an entire library of books into my back pocket while on vacation.

  • Michael Baird

    I think part of the paper fetish is the dependability of the format. My public library uses Overdrive for audio and ebooks, the ebooks are only downloadable into an Adobe product viewable on my laptop. The last thing I want is to tote around my laptop to read a book. The audio can be transferred to my ipod or iphone with little problem, but the ebooks cannot. I have one of the most popular mobile devices in the country, yet a simple act (reading a book) is often unsupported. Of course, I can buy digital versions from Amazon or B&N that will work on my device, or freely download public domain material, but that's sort of missing the whole point.

    Print books aren't quite as convenient as my iphone, but I can depend on their form to be where I want, when I want it; I have control over that. It's a frustrating situation not having that kind of control with ebooks.

    Until there is a transparency in ebooks, that they really are just content that can go where the user chooses, they are not going to gain total acceptance.

  • http://commonplace.net Lukas Koster

    Absolutely agree: 'book' does not equal 'physical carrier' (being paper…). 'Book' = content, for centuries bound to paper print. But now 'book' can also be digital.
    This does not say anything about personal preferences of course. I like reading print books, but I am definitely not saying that only print books are real books. Of course not.
    If you're interested in a detailed analysis, see my blogpost http://commonplace.net/2009/11/is-an-e-book-a-b

  • Kathy S

    It's taken a while for audiobooks to be accepted as “books”, too, and they've definitely been around a while now (either tapes or CDs or digital downloads). But listening to a story adds another dimension to the experience of “reading”: it can either be another way for a book to be bad, or the production adds to the story. Does the experience of reading an ebook differ from reading print? Does it add or detract, is it just different, or is it different at all?

  • Pat Leach

    My advice–calm down. Soon enough (well okay, maybe not soon enough) we will all have had enough experiences with electronic readers that include our favorite coffee cup, our warmest afghan, and our beloved kitty. And we'll have largely forgotten what the fuss was about.

  • jessajune

    I was popping in to say what Michael Baird has already eloquently said – there are problems with ebook formats. For libraries, it can be complex and quixotically more expensive to provide access to ebooks, largely because publishers are still so freaked out by the new model.

    For those interested in digital archives, there's another set of problems created by the rapid rate of change in software and hardware – if you buy a book for your library, it can last decades, but if you purchase an ebook, it is hard to say how long it will be before the format becomes obsolete. So for institutions like libraries, books are a better, more secure investment.

    So yes, I agree with your point from a writer's perspective. But a librarian's point of view involves more than an emotional link to the past – there are very real practical problems for which good solutions have not yet been found.

  • Joan

    I totally agree…it's the content, not the format. Check out Linda Holmes' “In Which, Emphatically and Forever, I Decline to Care How Books Smell” at http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2010/03/in_w

    She would not have applauded!

  • http://blogwithoutalibrary.net ae-j

    I'm really glad you posted this, David. I couldn't agree more.

  • ao5357

    To balance the discussion, I'd like to point out that this post is better on paper than on a screen. And the book is way better than the movie.

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    ao5357 – I'm thinking those are personal choices, and not hard facts.

    “This post is better on paper” – really? To who? How is it better on paper? For example, you just left a comment – can you do that on paper?

    “the book is way better than the movie” – not to visual learners. Not to people who don't enjoy reading. Not to people who'd rather spend 2 hours watching than 3 days reading.

    Just sayin…

  • ao5357

    It would be a total waste of time to print out this blog post, read it, then return to comment.

    “The books is better than the movie” is something snooty people say. If someone has a bias to format, like preferring Vinyl records to MP3s, their argument for such a preference generally doesn't make much sense. That, or they have some sort of vested interest in preserving the legacy format.

    Print books and eBooks are not, and likely never will be, equivalent. It's not likely that a market saturated with eBooks will allow for a booming dead tree market either, so I guess I'm pointing to an eventual winner. I really do hope that paper books will be considered novelties within my lifetime; it will indicate that content delivery has evolved.

  • http://johnmiedema.ca John

    For long-form reading I care about …

    – Reading in the right setting without distractions, preferably a beautiful book that feels right in my hands (fiction)
    – Being able to flip back and forth super fast between pages bookmarked with my thumbs as I absorb a complex idea (non-fiction)
    – Get all the pictures and graphs that still only seem to come with print books

    I've got nothing against ebooks and ereaders. I have a Kindle myself for some reading. But we still have to find one that does the job for all long-form reading. Container matters. It gets a little tiresome hearing the same old marketing hype about how ereaders will replace print. 30 years and ticking since we heard that. No wonder people applaud when someone finally declares the emperor has no clothes!

  • ferjur

    Aupa David:

    Al parecer seguimos identificando el verdadero libro con el soporte papel…y, sí, necesitamos adaptarnos rápidamente antes de que sea demasiado tarde.


  • jimsweetman

    The applause was a social event, we are geeky but cultural, and so will be the evolution away from paper products. However, there are lots of other big issues in there and writing is going to have to find its own value as music has had to do and that is very different from the profits of music or book publishing houses. Librarians too can either evolve as knowledge managers, information facilitators and repositories of their heritage or get closed down. Final question! What is the right ratio between books and computer screens in a public library?

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    John – good points! Not sure I'd say it's comparable to the “emperor has no clothes” since I've seen people using and enjoying ebook readers (you even have one).

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    Yes! Agreed.

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    Your final question is a doozy! Gina Millsap, the library director where I work, usually tells libraries that they probably have too many books – we need to collect smarter, not simply more, stuff. How many of our books sit for years on a shelf? In a public library, 2-3 years is probably WAY to much down time for that book.

    Get rid of the stuff that's never used … and put in more collaboration spaces, more tables, etc – and then let patrons check out laptops and hook up to your wifi system!

    Both space/use problems solved :-)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/disobedientlibrarian Dana Longley


    Great post! I think this over reliance on “containers” also shows in issues of information literacy and library instruction. The way librarianship has organized information and taught others about information access is via their containers (books, journals, etc.). Those lines are blurring more everyday and also becoming less important from an information evaluation perspective. To most of our users, this is simply not relevant. Not to say recognizing where information is coming from isn't still very important, but I think we as librarians and information experts need to move away from our “container mindset.”

  • http://www.mysiteonline.org/ Brendon Kozlowski

    I find it highly ironic that such a statement would be applauded at an event entitled, “Computers in Libraries”. I may prefer reading from a physical, printed-on-paper book, but many people prefer digital. The medium doesn't matter, and whether or not librarians prefer one over the other doesn't necessarily mean that our patrons do, nor should we be deciding what's best for them. Computers in Libraries, my friends. Digital and paper working together.

  • http://www.facebook.com/disobedientlibrarian Dana Longley


    Great post! I think this over reliance on “containers” also shows in issues of information literacy and library instruction. The way librarianship has organized information and taught others about information is usually via their containers (books, journals, etc.). Those lines are blurring more everyday and also becoming less important from an information evaluation perspective, and to most of our users, is simply not relevant. Not to say recognizing the format or pub type isn't important, but I think we as librarians need to move away from our “container mindset.”

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  • Frank

    My main concern with e-books is the increased control the publishers have after we've bought them. It's my understanding that there will be no “used” market for e-books because of publisher restrictions.

    Compare this with the joys of a good used bookshop, and I can see why some would favour “real” books over e-books.

  • Matt

    If the “container” doesn’t matter, why do ebook sellers have to cut the cost of a “book” so dramatically to entice people to buy? And why does the ipad software go through so much to trouble to be a print metaphor (view of riffled papers to indicate progress, binding bend in the center)? Books in fact are not a container, books are books. Unlike film, video or recorded music, books are not just a delivery technology, they are what they are, “books.” I guess, for the purposes of what a lot of people enjoy, plot-driven best sellers read just to get “lost in a story”, it really doesn’t matter whether you read the novel as a book or as an ebook. But, yes, many authors, and most any author of literary and artistic merit most certainly thinks about the actual published object. Take “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler” or “Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth,” as prime examples of books that fully take into account their “bookness”

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    ebook sellers cut the cost of an ebook because there's no paper, hence no print shop, etc to pay. Very same reason why some newspapers (over 129 of them to date) have gone digital and cut their print shop staff.

    I disagree on the “books are books” thing – we've just had the printed bound thing for a long time. Before that, we had stories on scrolls, clay tablets, pottery shards, cave walls, and in oral tradition. The modern print book has worked fine for a long time now … but I think we're seeing the beginnings of the next format.

  • http://twitter.com/jkennerly John Kennerly

    Great post which spurs thought and response. I have shared some thoughts at http://johnkennerly.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/ho… which (in my mind anyway) continue the conversation.

  • INTPLibrarian

    Yes, a real “book” is on paper. That's just a definition. A “novel”, for example, though, could be on paper, online, or carved into the side of a tree. Semantics, maybe, but, hey, I was a Linguistics major undergrad. :-)

    OTOH, I *am* wary of ebooks. Information needs to be preserved by someone and librarians seem to be the only group that cares about that. I can't retrieve papers I wrote in high school because they were saved on a 5.25″ floppy and written on an Apple II+. I'm pretty sure books written hundreds of years ago are still available, though.

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  • http://otherlibrarian.wordpress.com Ryan Deschamps

    The medium IS the message. The 10 commandments on stone tablets is different different different from the 10 commandments on a blog post.

    It's totally fair to consider a paper book a 'real' book in the same way it is totally fair for something to think a 'real' window is that thing that lets you see outside your house (not the thing you are possibly using to view this post). e-Book is a metaphor. I'm almost certain the name is going to have to change once it starts to be adopted full-hog.

  • Batarang

    What else can be said except, “Thanks,” for re-iterating this. One of these days people will catch on. Most likely they will just pass on.

  • http://crownrentcar.net sewa mobil

    What else can be said except, “Thanks,” for re-iterating this. One of these days people will catch on. Most likely they will just pass on

  • sewa mobil

    To balance the discussion, I’d like to point out that this post is better on paper than on a screen. And the book is way better than the movie.

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  • Me

    I agree with a lot of what you're saying but sometimes the container does matter. I do audio books, ebooks, and print, relatively equally. When I'm reading an ebook though, I've noticed just how much I miss the smell of the print. Sometimes it's an old musty book owned by a cigar smoker. Other times it's that brand new book smell. As much as I love my ipad, iphone, kindle and all the other gadgets I own, they don't offer that as a feature. What is “real” can be subjective – is looking at a renoir on your laptop as equally “real” as going to see it in person? Whether more real or not, the experience is certainly different. And that brings me to my last point – experience matters. Whether I'm reading a book in the back of the car while my brother is poking me continuously or I'm in a barn or on my couch at home… the sights, sounds and smells do provoke moods which affect what I get out of a book.

  • Bhenry

    The smell of print is toxic ink.

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