The Case for Picture Books

A few weeks ago, I read the book The Case for Books by Book Historian, and head of the Harvard University Library, Robert Darnton. It was a rather heavy collection of essays, but they made a very good case for both the printed book and e-book to coexist. Darnton’s book had a lot to do with Google’s Book Project, and why Google – though their motto says, “Don’t be evil” – may actually be doing evil. As a librarian, he had no objections to sharing and openly lending resources. What he objected to was the potential for a company with a monopoly to profit off these resources to satisfy their shareholders.

The internet has certainly disrupted many industries such as the newspapers (we lost one of our major ones here in Seattle last year), the music industry, and the traditional encyclopedia. Still, the book, according to Darnton, has staying power.

My personal experience is that beautifully illustrated children’s books cannot be replaced by a glossy iPad or Kindle. Maybe I’m projecting, but I think kids need the tactile feel of the page in their hands. They physical motion of turning the pages, scanning the illustrations before reading the text don’t seem to work with e-readers. At least I don’t see the appeal.

For adult books, however, I have found that my reading habits have increased with an e-reader. The ease of downloading a book without leaving your home is easy. I worried, at first about the inability to write in the margins or leave sticky notes on pages, but the annotation tools are quite easy to use. What about borrowing e-books?

I’m a heavy public library user both personally and for books to complement my classroom library. I tried borrowing ebooks before I had an e-reader and reading for long periods of time on a computer screen is definitely not ideal. Now, however, there’s an app/service called overdrive that works with the Seattle Public Library which I tried. The list is rather limited, but there are some good ones available: Daniel Pink’s Drive, the Heath Brother’s Switch, and Gladwell’s Blink. I searched for books on education and only a handful of decent titles came up. Unlike the library’s traditional books, when an e-book is unavailable, they don’t tell you how many holds there are ahead of you. There are also several audiobooks available through this service that you can directly download to your mobile device. After 21 days, it will magically expire. Some titles, like David Brooks’ new book were not available, so I just went to the Kindle store and bought it. As much as I want to support my local bookstore, it was too easy to purchase from the comfort of home.

The public library’s juvenile fiction section is ok. I assume they’re building their collection. There were a few popular titles of children’s book series like Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, or Katie Kazoo. But very few classics were available. Here were some I found: The Phantom Tollbooth, Boxcar Children, Encyclopedia Brown, and a few Magic Treehouse books. This year and last year’s Newberry winners were available, but Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book or Louis Sachar’s Holes, weren’t, nor were any Lowis Lowry books available to be borrowed in this format.

As for picture books, I’m guessing the public library has the same feeling I do about the tactile nature and visual quality of a great picture book. Either they’re not spending any money on them, or they don’t exist as e-books. I would say there’s definitely a case for picture books.

On a somewhat related note, the WSJ reported that Random House was changing it’s pricing format for ebooks purchased from libraries to lend out. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

I hope both formats continue to exist, but it’s an interesting time in the book publishing industry. Nonetheless, despite budget cuts, public libraries continue to innovate and aim to be centers of learning for all. Our schools need to be too.