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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

NF and the E-Library

Yesterday I received the program for the Texas Library Association meeting at which Dorcas Hand (leading librarian from Houston) and I will be speaking in April. One session after another was on some version of “what your library can and should do about e-books and apps.” Indeed our session is one more varient of that — it is about save, replace, or merge print in an ebook age. But not one of the sessions focuses on the crucial but not often discussed question of where does nonfiction fit in the e-mix? As usual, NF is flying a bit both over and under radar with no concerted planning.

Here is what I mean: on the one hand, the most obvious set of books to weed as they age, or even replace wholesale, are the kind of “informational” books I was objecting to last week. A updateable database with good serach tools made up of digital encyclopedias, bits from key articles, links to approved sites, etc. can meet student needs to identify and define information — and sometimes even add in video clips of racing Cheetas or flowing lava. I have heard librarians say this over and over again — not least because many of the “informational” books, especially in elementary school libraries, are series books that all use the same format and have no authorial voice — in other words they are books written in a fashion very similar to the database entries. So at a glance, NF leads the way into the e-library future.

On the other hand, the ebooks that are, and will be, made available to libraries for pure reading are largely if not entirely fiction. I suspect that is, in good part, because the NF books are heavily designed and illustrated which presents both potential formatting challenges in a download and rights challenges if the author or publisher did not, years ago when no one thought of it, clear digital permissions (and is unlikely to do so in a lump now with no clear additional revenue). When we move from information to reading, NF lags behind, struggling to find a place in the e-library.

See the contradiction? And this fault line between “replace” and “can’t get” is also the borderline between information and point of view — which may (following Monica’s argument for the moment) also be that between elementary and middle grade. Will young readers not see a NF book between the board books on shapes and picture book biography or natural history and heftier books they have to lug in their backpacks in middle school? Or will the information/point of view split go all the way down, so a library has a rich set of databases, but also more personal (thus witty, or beautiful, or exciting) NF books that remain i print and on its shelves. That would make perfect sense — if we were all speaking about these issues. Instead the most general form of these e-library discussions is either to assume that NF will entirely go the way of the database, or to ignore the problems of NF in e-books. I’ve tried to smuggle this issue into our session at TLA — but would love to get your thoughts here.