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January 20, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Books are books — even if they eSmell differently

TERRE HAUTE — Just a few years ago, if somebody asked what the term “eReader” meant, I probably would’ve guessed, “One who reads books that start with the letter E.”

Actually, an eReader is a portable, handheld electronic device that allows its user to digitally download an entire book (called an “eBook”), such as “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck or even “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (the titles don’t have to begin with E).

Today, eReaders and eBooks are spreading rapidly, everywhere. In the first 10 months of 2010, eBook sales increased 171.3 percent compared with the same period of 2009, according to Association of American Publishers statistics quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer. A Harris poll in September showed that 8 percent of Americans owned an eReader, and that was before Christmas shopping sent sales surging.

I’m an ink-and-paper guy. I used to wear the smell of the newspaper’s press room at the end of a workday. Some of my best friends are printers (meaning actual people employed in a print shop, not those machines connected to your computer). So, it’s not easy to admit this, but … I have used an eReader (my wife’s). And I like it.

True, swiping your finger across the screen of a Kindle or Nook doesn’t feel the same as turning a physical page, but such a change isn’t a cultural atrocity. Words are words. Books are books, even if they smell different.

The Vigo County Public Library shelves contain more than 200,000 hard-copy books. Patrons can choose from 15,000 downloadable eBooks available through the library’s online “virtual branch.” And later this year, cardholders will be able to check out one of three new eReaders recently purchased by the library.

Electronic readers sitting alongside ink-and-paper books inside the bastion of reading, the public library — what’s the world coming to? The library, more often, perhaps. “It’s just a different form of visiting us,” said Jeff Trinkle, the VCPL’s public information and services director.

Though the library hasn’t yet started loaning out its new eReaders (a trio of Kindles, sold by Amazon), the Vigo County facility is already a popular source of downloadable materials. Patrons can access an inventory of 15,000 virtual eBooks, audiobooks, music and videos through the library’s membership in the Indiana Digital Media consortium. That group of 11 libraries from around the state is connected to a nationwide eMaterials service called OverDrive.

That means, anyone with a valid Vigo County library card can download the latest New York Times bestseller — using an eReader such as a Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, Literati or iPad, iPhones and iPods, or a home computer — for free. (As of now, the Kindle is compatible with only a limited number of Vigo County’s online selections, Trinkle said.)

Tech-savvy people are taking advantage. Last year, 42,810 of the Vigo Library’s downloadable materials — eBooks, audiobooks, music and videos — were circulated, marking an increase of 223 percent over 2009.

Some literary purists may lament the shift, but it doesn’t scare the library. When the Internet emerged, doomsayers predicted the death of libraries. Instead, free access to the information super highway keeps the library’s computer stations busy morning, noon and night. Likewise, the arrival of eBooks and eReaders is “exciting,” Trinkle said. “It gives us a great chance to grow.

“With every new form of media that’s come out, we’ve embraced it, rather than fought it,” he added. In fact, the local library started offering eBooks in 2006, two years before the VCPL joined the statewide consortium.

Embracing the change allows for new possibilities. My wife enjoys the flexibility of her Nook Color, an eReader from Barnes & Noble. All of the eReaders have pros and cons, from price (around $140 to more than $500) to size, to capabilities. Her Nook connects to the Internet through WiFi or 3G and can download a classic, such as “A Tale of Two Cities,” often for as little as 99 cents, or a bestseller for $10. At 8 inches tall, 5 inches wide and a half-inch thick, it fits in her purse. The 7-inch touchscreen displays an eBook’s pages at whatever type size the user chooses, and is backlit, so it can be read in dim light.

It appeals to readers of any age. For Mallory Bell, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, her Nook Color was the first present she opened Christmas morning. Since then, she’s downloaded nearly 20 books. “I like that you can go onto the Internet and research the book, and then go into the [virtual] shop and buy it,” Bell said.

For folks unfamiliar with eAnything, digitally downloading an eBook is like pulling an ink-and-paper book off the shelf. Instead of using your hand to grab John Grisham’s latest, you use an eReader to pull the electronic version of that book out of cyberspace. As with the Vigo County library’s hardbacks and paperbacks, its eBooks are borrowed; the download has a time limit. (The ePublishers have to make a living, too, and libraries must purchase virtual copies of eBooks.)

This isn’t the end of Western civilization, the quest for knowledge or paper books. Actually, the Harris poll showed that people with Nooks, Kindles and other eReaders are reading more and buying more books. One in five Americans hadn’t purchased any books in a year, but 92 percent of eReading Americans had bought some form of a book, according to the survey.

Trinkle has personally dabbled in eReading, recently downloading the eBook “How to Learn Spanish.” Still, Trinkle — 50 and in his 12th year on the library staff — also remains fond of traditional books. “For my entertainment, I like to have a book,” he said, “old-school, I guess.”

Ninety-one percent of the library’s materials are ink-and-paper, he said, while 9 percent are digital. Old-school-style books won’t disappear in the near future, Trinkle predicted, though, eBooks will become the norm, instead of the exception.

The end of the paperback era is anybody’s guess. “I’ll leave that to the fiction writers,” Trinkle said. That story, no doubt, will be available only through a digital download.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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