It seems that every week I report in this newsletter about more and more genealogy books that are being converted to electronic format. Sure, old books have been digitized for several years now. However, even new books are now appearing as electronic publications.
One example is the 5th Edition of The Genealogist's Address Book, by Elizabeth Petty Bentley, published by Genealogical Publishing Company. It is available on a CD-ROM disk or as a traditional (paper) book. The first four editions of The Genealogist's Address Book were printed on paper, but the economics caught up with reference books. Each new edition costs more and more to print. As prices escalated, sales decreased. Many people could not afford the higher prices. The new 800+ page 5th Edition now costs $49.99 for the paper version, but the CD-ROM version costs only $19.99. The CD-ROM version reportedly has sold more copies than has the paper version.
This is only one such example; there are many more. Is this an indication of the end of book publishing as we know it? Will simple economics drive printed books out of existence?
Many bibliophiles cringed when the Internet search engine Google announced plans to digitize the book collections of five major libraries. To be sure, there isn't as much personal "touch and feel" with a plastic disk or an online web site. I have read many comments about this, such as, "no one will ever want to read an entire novel on their computer screen," or, "online books will succeed only when every bathroom has a high-speed Internet connection!" I recently read another statement from a librarian: "There's just a coziness with a book. The smell. Can you smell a laptop?"
I believe that librarian's view is a bit too simplistic. Very few people would suggest that all books should be printed forever on paper.
For the rest of this article, let's divide the topic of books into two major categories: (1.) books that are meant to be read from cover to cover (such as a novel) and (2.) reference books that typically are only read in small segments at a time (such as an encyclopedia).
Novels and other books that are meant to be read from cover to cover probably will never become popular on today's computers. The glare from the screen is enough to dissuade a reader. The bulky, electronic nature of a computer discourages people from reading novels and other books meant to hold your attention from cover to cover. My guess is that most readers will continue to pay a premium price to read a printed novel in place of an electronic one.
All this will obviously change as computers improve. The computers and electronic "book readers" ten or twenty years from now probably will be wafer-thin, flexible screens the size of a piece of paper that you can roll up and stuff into a pocket or purse. They will produce no more glare than a piece of paper, perhaps even less. They will be easier to read than paper. They will operate on batteries that last for twenty, fifty, or even more hours before needing to be recharged. Today's "book readers" are already about the size of a paperback novel and weigh less than one pound. As technology continues to improve, they will become even smaller and lighter. Until that day arrives, however, nobody will want to read "War and Peace" on a computer screen while sunbathing at the beach.
Reference books are an entirely different matter. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, operators' manuals, and other reference materials are generally read only a few pages at a time. Such reference material seems to be much better suited for online or CD-ROM distribution. The bulk of a computer and the screen glare do not seem like major issues when reading only a few pages. Indeed, online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia and Encarta have seen skyrocketing success even as printed reference books (Encyclopedia Britannica) produce reduced sales figures every year.
Think of all the genealogy books you have consulted. Aren't most of them reference books? Didn't you only consult a page or two, or maybe five or ten pages? How many genealogy books have you read from cover to cover? I bet it is very few. The Genealogists' Address Book is an excellent example: it is a reference book, and nobody will ever be spellbound by it as they read it from cover to cover.
The conversion of genealogy books to digital formats would seem to make sense, even when "War and Peace," "Gone with the Wind" or "The Da Vinci Code" probably should remain only on paper.
Google has quickly become the dark horse in this topic. No one knows exactly how Google will handle the paper-to-electronic transition. However, the company will scan at least 15 million public domain titles from Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, the University of Michigan, and the New York Public Library. The project is already well underway but could take years to complete and may cost $10 a book. We can assume that the number of genealogy books scanned in this process will be less than one percent of the total. However, even one percent of 15 million is still a lot of books!
In 1450, technologies developed over the previous thousand years were combined to produce a revolutionary new process of printing. By integrating paper invented by Chinese, movable type first tested by Koreans, and oil-based ink developed by Italian painters, Gutenberg's printing press supplanted laborious hand copying with mass production. A similar revolutionary change is in the works: the digital revolution.
Computer-aided desktop publishing and digitization processes have finally replaced paper and printing press, making computers and the Internet the modus operandi for information exchange. However, neither the printing press nor any computer technology by itself causes revolutionary changes. But the processes enabled by new technologies is already changing the way we use information and will eventually make printed books obsolete.
Both the printing press and the digitization have similar effects on the economics of information: reducing production costs and making knowledge (and entertainment) more accessible. It is a small step to convert encyclopedias, novels, and magazines into digital format.
The Gutenberg revolution brought more than an improvement in printing processes. Lowering costs and the increased availability of books contributed to rising literacy, civic and political participation, and dissemination of news and ideas. The printing technology made possible daily newspapers and magazines, and they, in turn, opened new business opportunities and processes of information exchange and consumption. In short, changes in production technology improved the living conditions of all mankind. I believe we will see a repeat of that improvement as the newest technologies will again improve literacy, productivity, and worldwide living conditions.
I suspect that economics will drive the entire topic of reference books. Paper and printing prices continue to rise year after year. Prices of CD-ROM disks and online access charges continue to drop year after year. At some point, the two lines cross: it becomes more cost effective to publish electronically than on paper. In fact, I think those two lines crossed years ago. For a number of years, electronic publishing has been more cost-effective than printed books.
I suspect that many more genealogy publishers will soon follow the Genealogical Publishing Company's lead. It simply makes sense to sell a book for $19.99 instead of $49.99. Electronic publishing allows this. Likewise, old out-of-print books can be republished electronically at far better prices than doing the same in print. Archive CD Books USA and other companies have created thriving business by making out-of-print books available to genealogists in electronic format at reasonable prices.
Will printed books disappear? Certainly not. I suspect that non-reference materials will be around in print for many more years. However, genealogy and other reference books will be digitized whenever possible. Within the next decade, I suspect that almost all genealogy publishers will convert to electronic publication, whether it is on CD-ROM disks or on an Internet file server somewhere. In fact, the costs of online publishing and online wireless access are dropping so fast that I believe CD-ROM disks will be obsolete within a decade.
Today's information usage has shown why computer-assisted consumption is superior. Reference material - dictionaries, encyclopedia, directories, databases, and other collections - have proliferated simply because online access offers better methods of searching, indexing, clipping, and cross-referencing, a lesson well learned by Encyclopedia Britannica. The benefits afforded to consumers plainly favor reference online web sites and even CDs over printed books as a form of information usage.
A related topic is the role of librarians. No matter what the future distribution method is, librarians will still be needed to sort the wheat from the chaff. A good librarian is essential when trying to find a particular source of information. In fact, as more and more material becomes available electronically, the role of the librarian will increase, not decrease. All the Google programmers combined will never be able to replace a good reference librarian.
Genealogy reference librarians are valuable, and we have far too few of them. Those who are available have always been limited to helping only a few genealogists: those who walk in the front door of the library. Even worse, most expert genealogy librarians spend far too much time doing unrelated tasks, such as clearing paper jams in the photocopier or directing patrons to the nearest restroom. Wouldn't it be better to provide access to these experts in an online environment? Instead of having each person respond only to those who walk in the door, how about making it easy for the experts to help people across the country? How about across the world? Access to the librarian might be by e-mail, by keyboard instant messaging, or by some form of voice, such as a telephone. Indeed, if we could make hundreds of genealogy expert librarians available at once, each online "patron" could be electronically routed to the single librarian who is most expert in the particular geographic area and timeframe of interest.
The researcher in Oregon who is researching Vermont ancestry in the early 1800s could ask questions of the Vermont expert reference librarian. That expert, by the way, might live in Vermont or in Oklahoma or in some other distant location. The expert might be sitting in a physical library at the time, or they could be at home. Due to family commitments, he or she might be restricted to only working evenings and weekends or perhaps "mothers' hours." He or she might even be physically handicapped. Physical condition is not important in a virtual library; knowledge and the ability to work with people are the major requirements.
As we move further and further into the brave new world of online information anywhere and everywhere, "information workers" are becoming more valuable than ever. (Information workers are those who utilize large amounts of information in their jobs in order to better enable the worker to make decisions or to share expertise.) Librarians, archivists, and other "information workers" have always been valuable to the average genealogist. I believe they will be equally valuable, or even more so, as we move on to high tech publishing with hundreds of thousands of genealogy books available at our fingertips. In fact, as the volume of available material increases, the need for expert librarians (information workers) will grow, not decrease.
Libraries will undergo radical changes in the next decade or two. Most libraries and librarians will survive and grow; a few will not. Indeed, some libraries may cease to exist as physical buildings. The genealogy reference librarians who are best able to adapt will find their services to be in greater demand than ever before. Library patrons and all other consumers certainly will benefit from increased access to knowledge at reduced prices.
These are exciting times in which we live.