Sunday, August 8, 2010


I have collected an awful lot of things over the years. The house is full of books, magazines, records, videos, coins, stamps, ornaments, pictures and so on. It takes a lot of space and a great deal of it could be disposed of without making much of a difference to my life. I'm rather fond of these collections of course, in particular my books, but I wonder how much longer we will need to devote so much space to storing them.

Bookends by maxually, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  maxually 

Books are like trophies, showing my interests and tastes. I like to scan other people's bookcases to see what we have in common, as I used to do with record collections. But what happens when all of this is digital? If you can access the world's music or books on the net and download instantly for free of for a small fee what is the point of having a collection? E-book sales are growing sharply and already Amazon are selling more digital literature than hard copy.  My old record collection gathers dust in a cupboard today and I now have my entire music collection on an iPod. If all my books are stored on, say, an iPad in the future will this mean the end of the bookcase? Is IKEA's massively popular bookcase Billy heading for extinction?

I don't think the book will disappear any time soon but some types of book will. Paperback literature will probably be phased out first since we tend to buy them on the spur of the moment, read them and them never look at them again. Textbooks are another perfect category to go digital. We buy extremely expensive volumes as students that tend to be obsolete within a year. Textbook publishers love to revise these books annually to counter the second hand market between students. If they were digital you would always have access to the latest information instead of having bookshelves groaning under the weight of useful thousand page tomes such as Microsoft Windows 95 for Dummies. For some interesting discussion of online textbooks read a new article in Forbes, Why can't textbooks be free? (there's also a lengthy discussion under the article)

However there will be a place for quality books, richly illustrated and with an appealing layout, feel and design. I have many books (art, photography, nature etc) that would not transfer so well onto a laptop. A book can be a beautiful object in itself and is a permanent record to refer to. I have many books on subjects that I would probably never look up on the net. However since I have the physical books on my shelf they are reminders of past interests that may be rekindled in the future.

I can't imagine disposing of my book collection but I wonder if future generations will have the same feelings about print. Why should we own a book or piece of music at all? If it is always available on the net there is no reason to collect. The popular music service Spotify gives you access to unlimited music online for a small fee per month so when will we see a similar service for e-books? This is discussed in an article I read in the Norwegian paper Aftonposten last week (read article Leie, ikke eie e-b√łker - Borrow, don't own e-books, use Google Toolbar to translate). Sooner or later someone will start such a service. You won't download the books, they will simply be available online. Once you've read it you move on and no more bookshelves to buy.

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