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Arguments for (but really against) e-readers

June 10, 2011

Hi.  My name is Jessa Lingel.  I’m in the PhD program at Rutgers in the School of Communication and Information, studying library and information science. I’m also an intern at the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research this summer.  I thought I’d make my initial foray into the Social Media Collective blog by talking about a mishap that happened during my move to Cambridge, specifically about whether or not I should make the switch to e-readers.

Before I get started, you should know that I’m pretty tied to my identity as a librarian.  When asked what I do, either at dinner parties or on various bureaucratic forms, I state my profession as a librarian, and only upon coaxing do I explain that I’m getting my PhD in library science.  This is partly because it gets kind of tiring explaining that a PhD in library science exists (it does and it’s awesome!), but mostly because I really love and identify with some of the more persistent stereotypes about librarians*: I’m organized, I’m nerdy, I like shushing people for minor infractions of library etiquette, and perhaps above all else, I really love books.  In particular, I love books as artifacts that you can hold in your hand and leaf through and write in and lend to your friends and rearrange on a shelf.  So when my internship at MSR required me to move to Cambridge, it was a no-brainer to take some books with me.  I knew that the most economical option was to ship my books media mail, and didn’t mind the longer wait.  At least, I didn’t mind until I opened up the first of two boxes I’d sent.  Of the ~40 books I’d packed in the box, about half of them were there, in perfect condition.  The other half were missing, and had been replaced with books that were not mine.  As in, someone had evidently opened the box, taken out half of my books, and replaced them with others.  (I’m 100% positive I did not own Freud’s Blind Spot or the autobiography of Alan Arkin.)  I’ve since gone to the Cambridge post office and complained, but I’m not really holding out hope that my books will ever come back to me.  (As an aside, it seems crazy to me that the USPS does not use tracking numbers for complaints of lost books, nor do they provide contact information for the Mail Recovery Center, which is where my books will wind up if some kind soul returns my books.)  Ominously, my second box of books has yet to show up.

But I didn’t actually set out to complain about the USPS in this post.  More related to the blog’s focus on technology and social media, as a result of this experience, I’ve found myself thinking about e-readers.
There are plenty of librarians who are deeply supportive and enthusiastic of e-readers.  I have not been one of them.  As I mentioned before, I like books as physical objects.  But if I’d had an e-reader, I would not be in my present circumstance of trying desperately to remember exactly which books I sent myself from my collection (although I identify as a librarian, I wasn’t quite librarian enough to create an itemized list before boxing up my books in New Jersey, a mistake I’m not likely to make again).  Presumably, I wouldn’t have shipped  anything at all – I would have simply put my e-reader in my carry-on luggage and spared myself the entire ordeal of book rates and mail recovery and throwing a fit in the Cambridge Post Office.  So am I convert?  Well, no.  The main reason that losing my books has been so frustrating is because I am a fervent believer in taking notes in books.  One of the books I’m missing, de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life,Volume Two has been nothing short of inspirational for me as far as developing ideas on ethnographic methodology.  Its pages are absolutely covered with notes and underlined passages. If I’d read it on an e-reader, perhaps I would have taken notes in a notebook, as I do when I read library books.  But the reason I purchase physical copies of books at all is to be able to write in them.  Beyond the fact that I develop ideas more substantively when I engage with a text by physically writing on it, I like that taking notes leaves a kind of biographical (book)mark in what I’m reading.  To my knowledge, e-readers aren’t currently at a point where you can create marginalia, and I love marginalia.  When e-readers reach a point where I can scribble notes to myself (and share them with others, which would be great in a number of circumstances – with book groups, with students, with friends of similar literary leanings), I’ll probably be more tempted to give them a try.  Until then, I think I’ll stick with physical copies.  Except that I’ll make sure to create itemized lists when shipping them.  And to buy insurance.  Or possibly not let them out of my sight.

*If you’re interested in librarian stereotypes, Marie and Gary Radford have done some great work on this.

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