Booking to the Future

Paper or electronic? Futurists have been pushing one option for years—but do we have to choose?

November 30, 2010


It’s no secret that librarians like books. For decades, those pages sandwiched between rectangles of cardboard have been the primary reason librarians sought and secured employment. As methods of communication and information sharing evolve, however, books have begun to transform, sparking a debate not only among book publishers and readers but librarians as well.

In response to a hot-button issue in the library profession nationwide, the Library Research Service (LRS), a unit of the Colorado State Library, conducted a survey to check current library professionals’ predictions for the future of the paper book. It’s probably no surprise that respondents thought the trend would be toward electronic formats. But for a variety of reasons, paper books refuse to die a quiet death.

In December 2009, LRS posted an eight-question survey titled “The Future of the Book” on the homepage of its website and sent the link to multiple state, regional, and national library-related discussion lists. Survey questions asked respondents whether they owned an e-reader; whether or when they thought paper books would disappear; what format they currently used and expected to use in 10 years to read fiction, nonfiction, and textbooks; and what they predicted libraries would circulate in 10 years. Respondents were offered 2–5 answer options to these questions.

Over the course of a month, 1,326 respondents, representing all 50 states and 24 countries, completed the survey. A third of respondents worked in public libraries, a quarter in academic, and almost one out of five in school libraries. More than seven out of 10 survey respondents left comments to an open-ended question about their thoughts on the future of the book.

LRS staff evaluated the comments—ranging in tone from philosophical to passionate to practical—and collectively identified the six most frequently mentioned factors in the paper-versus-electronic-format debate: the existence of multiple formats, technological advantages, emotional/aesthetic appeal, content, cost, and time/generational change. After coding each comment according to which topics it addressed, LRS staff were able to analyze how the comments related to other survey responses.

Looking into the crystal ball

Chart 1: When Will the Paper Book Disappear?  Chart 2: Predicted Library Circulation in 10 YearsOverall, almost two out of three (63%) respondents claimed that paper books would never disappear, and half that number (33%) predicted their demise in from 21 to 100 or more years (see Chart 1). The remaining 4% anticipated that paper books would vanish within the next two decades. These numbers shifted when the 16% of respondents who reported owning an e-reader were singled out: E-reader owners were nearly three times as likely as non-owners to predict that paper books would disappear by 2030.

Despite the overwhelming conviction that paper books would not become extinct in the immediate future, the question remains as to what extent libraries will circulate them in, say, 10 years. Of the entire survey group, 43% of respondents predicted that libraries would circulate about the same amount of physical and electronic materials, and slightly fewer (39%) anticipated more electronic than physical. Less than half that percentage (16%) thought physical materials would continue to be more common. The prediction that libraries would increasingly favor electronic resources did not extend to a sentiment that libraries were growing irrelevant or would become completely virtual; less than 1% of survey respondents thought libraries would not exist or would circulate only electronic materials in 10 years.

Survey respondents’ predictions of their personal format choices also revealed a substantial drift toward electronic. In 10 years, the number of respondents who read fiction, nonfiction, and textbooks electronically could escalate from three to six times their current percentages, while paper use would decrease accordingly.

  Although these increases may appear drastic, use of electronic formats is starting from a point that leaves almost nowhere to go but up. Respondents’ current use of electronic formats was still relatively low–just 5% for fiction, compared with the 88% who opted for paper–and the majority expected paper to continue to be their preferred format for fiction and nonfiction. The most drastic changes were anticipated in the textbook business, with estimates that electronic use would increase from 10% to 59%, cutting use of paper textbooks to less than half–just 40%–by 2020 (see Charts 3 and 4).

Chart 3: Electronic UseChart 4: Paper Use

Two sides of the same coin

Despite the apparent consensus that much textbook use would migrate to electronic formats, survey respondents’ comments revealed contradictory opinions about this inevitability. Some respondents argued that electronic formats could be much more affordable and convenient for students, while others identified e-books’ subpar note-taking capabilities and the lack of color for scientific charts as reasons that paper remains a better option for academics.

This type of back-and-forth debate was no less animated for other types of reading. Format preference for fiction inspired ardent remarks from respondents, many of whom touted the emotional or aesthetic appeal of reading a paper book. As some put it, curling up in front of a fire with a cup of cocoa and an electronic machine just didn’t sound as cozy as feeling the textured paper and smelling the faint musty odor of a favorite old paperback. One respondent remarked, “Who wants to read their kid a bedtime story using a Kindle?”

Interestingly, survey respondents used similar points to argue both sides of an issue. For example, fans of both paper and electronic books claimed that their preferred format was more desirable because it was conveniently portable. Each format offers specific technological advantages to recommend it, but six in 10 survey respondents who commented on the subject found more to like about paper books’ durability, freedom from battery or electric power, and ease on the eyes. Only one in four had such positive things to say about e-books’ convenience or various enhancements (see Chart 5).

Chart 5: Percent of Positive Response to Formats' Cost and Technological Advantages

In addition to technological advantages, survey respondents cited lower cost as a benefit for both e-books and paper books. Here again, paper books seemed to win the argument: Two out of three comments said paper books were cheaper, while one in four argued that e-books were more cost effective. Furthermore, one in 10 of the respondents who commented on cost or technological advantages did not specify whether e-books or paper books held the upper hand.

More survey respondents agreed with the idea that multiple formats would coexist in the future, that it’s not an either-or debate. Nearly half of survey comments (46%) referenced previous format changes or identified potential for increased accessibility through alternative formats. “If a book interests people it will be published and ‘read,’ regardless of format, and regardless of whether ‘reading’ actually means reading, viewing, listening, or participating, or all four,” one respondent said.

Similarly, many survey respondents saw electronic books as simply one more way to make information available. In fact, one in five comments (18%) emphasized content over format, articulating one of two beliefs, best expressed in respondents’ own words: “Content, not containers! It’s not about the book–it’s about what’s inside of it” and “Different formats work for different audiences and purposes.”

Several survey respondents noted that children’s literature and art books would be the last, if ever, to migrate to electronic formats because of the superior quality and aesthetic appearance of print illustrations. Many comments conveyed the thought that electronic formats were most conducive to presenting news and informational reading–shorter texts, perhaps–while pleasure reading also would remain largely in print. That said, a number of survey respondents claimed the opposite, that some informational material, especially in academic categories, might be better absorbed and assimilated by reading paper books and that “throwaway” fiction or quick pleasure reads could be more compatible with transient electronic formats.

In addition to those influences on format choice, one in 10 comments expressed the thought that only time would tell. As younger, digital-oriented generations age, their preference for electronic gadgets may lead to a greater shift away from paper at the same time improvements to the technology become more frequent.

Future is still fuzzy

At the merest prompt, a discussion of the future of the book sends librarians and avid readers into zealous debate, with one group defending paper, a second advocating for electronic formats, and yet another scratching their heads in undecided confusion. Contributing to the chaotic conversation are reports trumpeted by companies such as Amazon, which announced this summer that Kindle e-book sales had surpassed those of hardcover books. While neither hardcover nor electronic book sales can hold a candle to paperbacks, electronic books are clearly emerging as a significant market share in the publishing industry. E-reading devices are becoming more affordable–at the time of this writing, the latest rendition of the Kindle, with free 3G wireless, was going for $189–and new devices such as the iPad offer free applications that bring together previously incompatible e-book formats (and in color, too!). These developments, which occurred after LRS conducted this survey at the end of 2009, have already addressed some of the respondents’ concerns about e-books; even so–or perhaps as a result–it is still difficult to judge how electronic books and reading devices will change in the coming year, let alone the next decade.

If nothing else, the 71% of survey respondents who left additional comments indicated that the book’s future is indeed a topic of fervent concern. An important point to note, however, is that 86% of survey respondents reported working in a library. Compared with casual patrons and users, most librarians are likely to have more ardent feelings about the traditional book or book formats in general. Yet no matter what librarians think, it is library users who will guide the future demand for format options in books and libraries. Perhaps this demographic should be surveyed next, to try to get a clearer view of their expectations.

One thing the survey does make clear is that many factors influence format choice for any type of book. Cost, technology, emotional/aesthetic appeal, content, and even the passage of time all will play a role in whether, when, and how the traditional paper book will change. “The book in some form will always be around,” one survey respondent sagely remarked. “We just may not recognize the form our grandkids or great-grandkids call a ‘book.’”

JAMIE E. HELGREN, an MLIS student at the University of Denver, is a research fellow at the Library Research Service, a unit of the Colorado State Library.