With e-readers making their presence felt in India, what does it spell for libraries and printed books

Technology has simplified almost every aspect of life, and several activities in life now largely involves button pushing. And the latest everyday activity poised to take the digital route is the act of turning the pages of your favourite book, thanks to the steady growth of e books and the popular Amazon Kindle finally making its presence felt on Indian shores. While this is all for the better as far as keeping up with latest trends goes, what does the availability of cheap, downloadable books and specialised reading devices mean for the trusted old libraries that everyone has loved for so long?

With a multitude of online activities and increasing academic and professional pressure, reading for pleasure is something people have precious little time for. So is the Kindle the final nail in the coffin for conventional libraries?

Pranav Madhusudanan, a final year Mechanical Engineering student at Sri Chitra Thirunal College of Engineering, disagrees: “Devices that allow you to download and read books on the fly are impressive indeed, but there is something more satisfying about holding a book in your hands and turning its pages. In the long run, such devices may cause the number of people who visit libraries to dwindle, but I'm sure the library itself will endure,” he says.

This view is shared by Geena Jacob and Amal J. Prakash, who are frequent visitors of the reference section of the State Central Library located in Palayam, as part of their preparation for the Combined Graduate Level Exam. Says Geena: “The primary reason I prefer conventional books to their online and downloadable counterparts is the strain caused on the eyes by looking at a screen for too long. While e books have their advantages, leafing through a regular book is a more comfortable experience, especially for academic purposes.”

Amal proposes a slightly different reason. “One thing the e-reader phenomenon cannot offer is the ambience that is found in the reference room of a library. Like minded people sitting together and studying in a library tend to motivate each other to achieve a level of concentration that cannot be attained in a light hearted study session with friends.”

Both of them are firm in their belief that the habit of going to a library and perusing books is too multi-dimensional an experience to be replaced overnight, proving that unless the folks at Amazon can somehow bring out entire academic texts and replicate the community learning experience, conventional libraries will continue to be relevant.

According to P.K. Shobhana, Deputy State Librarian at the State Central Library, modern technology does not concern traditional libraries as much as some may think. “We have never felt threatened by the advent of gizmos and online publishing, and have tried to incorporate technology as much as possible into library science. Computerised indexing and search functionality is an example for this and despite concerns on the contrary, our membership figure is growing every year, with the number being close to 20,000 as of this year. In my opinion, e-readers and the such can only be utilised to their full effect by people already accustomed to conventional reading, so they are not mutually exclusive,” she explains.

K. Radha Kumari, former associate professor at the Department of English, VTM NSS College, agrees with Pranav about the joy of turning pages in the literal sense. She puts things into perspective with her take on the matter: “I think e-readers are a matter of convenience. But for me the impact of reading off a page is much more than reading the same content on screen, and that is important.”

While future generations may offer a different opinion, the current generation does not mince words as it declares its wholehearted support for printed papyrus and the good old libraries that guard our greatest written works. Looking at the century old structure of the State Central Library standing proud in the evening sunlight, it is hard to disagree.

What are they reading?

“Apart from membership figures alone, the fact that needs to be registered is what people are reading. A few decades ago, Keralites were among the most well read people you could find, with a love for classic literature, be it Malayalam or other languages. But nowadays the trend is to pick up self-help books and find quick mantras to success. It is not the library, but the actual art of reading and appreciating true literature that is on the decline,” says P.K. Shobhana

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