Report on “Next Decade in Book Culture” at Johnson County Library in Kansas June 8

By John Mark Eberhart

Moderator John Mark Eberhart filed this report on last week's “Next Decade in Book Culture” event in Kansas.

Readers of traditional books and the electronic versions are not necessarily at war with one another. In fact, in many cases they’re one and the same.

That was one of the messages that emerged June 8, as the National Book Critics Circle and Johnson County Library presented a panel on “The Next Decade in Book Culture” at the county’s Central Resource Library in Overland Park, Kansas.

The panelists were NBCC members Mark Luce, a widely published reviewer who teaches English at the University of Kansas and the Barstow School, and Denise Low, second poet laureate of Kansas and a professor of English at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. Moderator was NBCC member John Mark Eberhart, the library’s Readers’ Advisory Coordinator and a member of the board of directors for the Missouri Center for the Book.

More than 30 people attended the event – and fully half of them said they owned and regularly used an electronic-book reader. But when questioned more closely about their reading habits, they also said, without exception, that they still read printed books. Many also enjoy audiobooks and audio downloads.

The obvious conclusion: E-books don’t have to be the enemy. During the panel discussion, Luce confessed he once viewed electronic books and their associated devices as “evil.” Then, he revealed, he was able to try out a family member’s Kindle and couldn’t put it down; three hours later, the owner had to prise it from his hands.

Low said she sees e-books not as a threat but as an opportunity – and this is coming from someone who wears several hats in the literary world; Low is an author, publisher and educator. (See her guest post later this week.)

Eberhart asked the audience about their reading habits concerning periodicals such as newspapers, magazines, literary journals and blogs. Clearly, newspapers continue to lose ground when it comes to readership; a number of people in the audience did say they no longer read the print editions of newspapers regularly, although many of them do avail themselves of the online versions. Again, though, the trend seems to be more toward a convergence of various forms rather than the abandonment of the traditional in favor of the purely electronic. For those in attendance, the world is big enough for The New York Review of Books, Rain Taxi’s online edition, the cross-platform books coverage provided by National Public Radio and its Web-based counterpart,, and also the recommendations provided by their local library staff.

“I do think we have this tendency in the book world to think of formats as being in opposition,” Eberhart said. “Here at the library, all we have to do is look at what our patrons are checking out to realize that kind of viewpoint is a mistake. Our collection includes music and spoken-word CDs, movies on DVD, and books, and we work with the Kansas State Library to provide downloads of audio and e-books to our patrons. While working on our various desks, I’ve personally had patrons come in and ask me to help them figure out how to download books to their iPads or Nooks or Kindles – and, having done so, I’ve helped those same patrons find ‘real’ books to carry out the door.”

Yet the electronic frontier still raises questions. Several audience members who were in attendance are published authors, and some expressed concerns about electronic behemoths such as Google Books running roughshod over writerly rights.

Low acknowledged that the intersection (or should that be “collision”?) of copyright law and electronic publishing remains a knotty issue, but added this: In every age, people interested in making a buck from the written word have found a way to do so. And readers and writers always have found a way to adapt to changing technology.

“We originally had scheduled this panel for January, but a blizzard forced us to delay it,” Eberhart said. “I’m glad we were able to reschedule instead of just scrapping the event, because I think this subject is vitally important. Libraries are not just warehouses for books. We have a vested interest in helping to ensure that issues of fairness and intellectual property are not forgotten as more and more content goes digital. We cannot serve our patrons if our own access to the written word is encumbered – and we must continue to serve those patrons even as these new technological wrinkles get sorted out. Study after study has shown that people who read – not only for information but for pleasure – are better citizens; they are more likely to vote, to volunteer, to patronize the other arts as well. Culture and democracy flourish, or perish, together. Doing our part to help both these things thrive is a mission we take seriously.”

John Mark Eberhart is the Reader's Advisory Coordinator for Johnson County Library in Overland Park, Kansas. He is the author of two verse collections, Night Watch and Broken Time, which was a finalist for the 2009 Thorpe Menn Award. From 2000 to 2009 he was the book review editor for The Kansas City Star. Currently he serves as vice president, managing editor and co-editor of poetry submissions for Kansas City Voices magazine.