I spent my childhood living on a farm and, later, in a village near that farm in southern Saskatchewan. There were no libraries or book stores nearby, but my parents belonged to a book club which sent their latest offerings to us regularly. I became an avid reader and a keen student of literature and many other subjects.
I bought my first hard cover book – a first edition of W. O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen The Wind – when I went to University. Mitchell signed it years later. The book was the first book I had seen that was about the area in which I lived and its people.The textbooks we used in school were published in Toronto, London or New York. Western Canada was mentioned as an agricultural area – perhaps quaint, but undeveloped – which provided markets for eastern industrial products. W. O. Mitchell and several other authors began to write about the prairies and the people who lived in this remarkable part of North America. Who Has Seen the Wind became the first book in my collection, and is still one of the most significant.
My wife and I have bought books, for ourselves and for others, published books, and considered them to be amongst our most valuable possessions. Some of them are fiction, while others focus on photography, history, nature, and philosophy. We now have a library that can be browsed and used regularly, a library that still surprises and excites us. We love fine books, books which are well written and well designed, objects which provide sustenance and beauty.
Those of us who collect books tend to specialize in particular genres, styles, subjects and countries of origin. Since we all have limited space to store and admire and use our books, we may sell or give some of them to friends and neighbours. A fine book is a great gift for the right person; and while some books become very valuable with age, many have limited economic worth. Some books are published inexpensively and are not meant to appeal to book collectors – although they may prove to be valuable because of their content and context.
E-books have become popular with some readers, especially those who travel. One can put hundreds or thousands of books on a reader, or on an iPhone or iPad, just what we may want or need on a long trip. In 2005, I spoke at a scientific conference in Uganda, where I urged scientists and publishers of scientific journals to adopt the use of e-journals rather than publishing paper journals. They were very interested. Just prior to the meeting, I visited the Director of the library at a local university where I was pleased, but not surprised, to learn that this library owned and lent many e-books and hoped to buy more as soon as they became available. Shipping paper books around the world is an expensive process.
Speed of access is another reason why e-books are popular in academic and other circles. Acquiring a book from a publisher thousands of miles away takes only minutes, just enough time to provide a credit card number and download the book. E-books have other advantages: they can be updated readily, they are less expensive to purchase, and they may contain audio, video and live links.
Book buyers, writers and publishers often debate the relative values of paper and e-books. Each of these products has unique qualities and advantages. They are simply different, just as a car is different from a truck or a van. Buy, rent or borrow the books or vehicles that will meet your needs at a specific time. Just because something is new doesn’t mean that it will replace an older product. Instead, new products find a niche and may capture the majority or the minority of a market. Film photography and vinyl records have not disappeared since they have unique qualities and avid users.
While I still collect and read paper books, I will continue to get information and knowledge from new media sources and newspapers which I read online and on paper. I can learn virtually anything that I want to learn, whenever I wish to learn it, with the material that is available online and in libraries. I hope that we can make this knowledge available to everyone in the world who wants to access it. Libraries, online access and computers that are as inexpensive as radios will help us make this happen.