To Grow a Library: Electronic or Hard Copies?

by BananaReader on October 11, 2012 · Exploration

e-reader Vs bookWhat does it mean to grow a library? Does it mean we fill our heads with literature and our heads then become the library? Or does it mean we actually purchase books that we keep forever and display?

Some argue that it does not matter the vesicle by which one reads a book; what matters more is whether the content of the book was archived in the mind. The opposing school of thought is that the reading of physical, material, tactile books, which are often then stored or exhibited, is the only way of truly growing a library. Both creeds agree on one thing: the savoring and keeping record of literary journeys is a worthwhile pastime. What differs is simply the method of transport.

Techno buffs believe in E-Readers: Nooks, Kindles, Kobos, iPads, tablets… others currently in development. They feel this is the most accessible, most efficient means of transferring knowledge from writer to reader. Readers of electronic books claim to store information in their brains and, consequently, their brains become their library. Interestingly, most E-readers on the market today contain a pictorial, electronic “library” of sorts that displays books, in a virtual (shelved) room. However, does this truly constitute a library? If one considers the history of hundreds of years of printed books, does one feel satiated in reading a book on a mechanical device? Does brain archiving not occur in both E-reading and hard-copy book reading? What would historians say? What would inventors of the printing press say if they knew their printing presses were collecting dust?

CBS Writer/ Producer Amy Westerby says, “I have to look at computer screens and TVs all day long. It’s nice to NOT look at one when I get home. I like to hold a book in my hands.” Registered Nurse Adeline Seekel feels differently. “If I want a book, I can have it on my E-reader instantaneously and begin reading it within a few minutes.”

An entire anti E-reader group exists. Let’s call these hard-copy readers H-readers, for the sake of brevity. H-readers pride themselves on books that take up space. H-books are objects that they can hold in their hands, embrace the texture of and smell. H-readers believe it is these tactile sensations that add substance to a work in a way that E-books cannot. For H-readers, hard-copy books embody the passage of time.

If one is holding an antique book, for example, H-readers will be enveloped in its discolored paper, its musty smell, its faded type (crafted by a typewriter?) the wear and tear, the agedness of the piece, as an important facet—perhaps even AS important—as the story itself.

Antiquarian collectors believe it is this overarching worn quality (preserved thoughtfully) of an antique book that gives it its luster—An oxymoron of sorts. Antique books have been held by many hands and enjoyed or rejected by many hearts. Does this make the words inside them more meaningful?

H-readers would argue that physical books are the only way to truly grow a library in the brooder, historical definition of “library.” Some H-readers take pleasure in displaying books they have read by parading them like trophies. “See what I’ve read!” It gives them a sense of pride, a nod to an education, and perhaps food for dinner-party conversation. H-books can feel like limbs, each one adding depth and richness, each adding layers to a reader’s life—like leaves of an onion, or rings on a tree.

While on the topic of trees, E-readers may believe they are being “greener” by not buying true books. It is true that they are not chopping down trees to enjoy Oliver Twist; they are merely enjoying the same words, verbatim, via a modern technology that invokes less damage to the environment than an H-book might. However, this argument is weak with newly published works, because they tend to be printed on recycled materials.

There may be precautious reasons for growing an E-library, as oppose to an H-library: No fear of fire or flooding, even theft (but what thief loads entire libraries onto his quick get-away van?) Who can say for certain that an E-device would not also be susceptible to fire or flood? Perhaps the likelihood is less with an E-book since E-devices tend to be carried on the reader’s person, however, the risk still exists, if only slim.

There is also the question of what happens to an H-library once its owner has parted from this world. In most cases, the children of the deceased must carry the burden of finding homes for these mementos, a chore that is not often a welcome one. Donating, selling, sorting to see if there is anything sentimental and/ or valuable, holding estate sales, hiring professionals (realtors, attorneys, etc) can be a hefty job. In short, big H-libraries have the potential to become big headaches.

Another consideration for H-readers with sizeable H-libraries is if they want to move locations. H-libraries can be cumbersome in this sense too. Mobilizing (and re-categorizing) hundreds (thousands?) of books, with their accompanying bookshelves, can be a daunting task.

All logistical considerations aside, we can summarize that E-readers exercise two senses: seeing and scrolling, while H-readers exercise three senses: seeing, touching and smelling. Does an olfactory element add to the literary experience?

Both E and H readers may be content to borrow a book from the library or a friend. They read it and then they give it back, so no library is being constructed at all. Growing a library holds no significance to these people. Jerry Seinfeld’s character on Seinfeld, the hit 1990’s television sitcom, was one such believer. Jerry asks, “What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they’re trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?”

Folks who believe that each book they read becomes a permanent fixture in their life—a limb on their body—would respond to Jerry’s declaration with a great deal of conviction. “We need them after we read them because they are a part of us” they reply. (This holds true whether the reader fancied the book or not.) Fascinatingly, a die-hard H-header will sometimes not even allow a friend to borrow one of his books (his limbs) because this would mean parting with a close friend for an extended period of time, with no insurance that the book would ever be returned. The excuse, “Oh, I forgot I had it. Are you sure I have it? I’ll have to look…” can mean the end of a friendship.

Whatever school of thought you subscribe to, the E-school or the H-school, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” –Cicero. Whether you choose to grow your library metaphysically or materially, may it bring you much joy.

Side note: There are no hard and fast rules saying one cannot be a participant in both schools of thought. However, literary people tend to be very clear—and persuasive—on which library they have chosen to grow.


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy Westerby October 15, 2012 at 8:53 pm

Nice job, Regina! Never thought about the estate sale part of it before. And yes, olfactory does come into play! Ever read a musty book? Yuck! I will give the e-readers that 🙂 And Debra is right, it never has to be all or nothing. Be open to the world and it will come to you…one way or another!


James Keeline October 12, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I agree that both forms of reading can have their place in one’s life. Our collections comprise just over 7,500 volumes cataloged in the database and housed in a modest home of about 1,000 square feet. Our next home will have to be larger to better accommodate this important part of our life.

We don’t have a tablet or ebook device but we do have iPhones and I find it convenient to have some books (technical and fiction) on one of the many free programs for reading PDF, Nook, and Kindle formatted electronic books. I just finished reading Tom Paulding by Brander Mathiews, a story of a boy’s search for buried treasure in the streets of New York. While it isn’t a National Treasure, it was interesting and full of details which I found educational. I read this some on the phone and some on the computer. I don’t yet have a physical copy of the book but think I will seek one out. The reason I like to read on the phone is that it is always with me and available during those times when one must wait for something.

During a gap between programming positions, I found that I should not buy physical books for the collections because of the expense. I came upon the idea of collecting the electronic editions of the author I am studying, Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930). The 150th anniversary of his birth was on October 4, 2012. He was a prolific author with 160 books and many more stories in dime novels, story papers, and short stories. Personally, he is most famous for his Rover Boys series (1899-1926) though he is bes known overall for creating the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Through it he produced many popular juvenile series books such as the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. He ran the company for 25 years (1905-1930) and his daughters continued it, one of them, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, for more than 50 years (1930-1982).

The Stratemeyer virtual collection began with obtaining any texts I could find by him online. These were free, of course, on places like Project Gutenberg,, and Google Books. I would download the TXT or PDF files as available. I especially enjoyed the PDF versions that include images of the pages rather than error-prone transcriptions. I enjoy seeing the typesetting layout and the illustrations which accompany these stories. Although I don’t have all of his 160 books yet, I have a greater number of his stories since I have scanned or photographed books otherwise unavailable and the periodical and dime novel stories as I have been able to find them. Frequently I’ll have a photocopy of one of these fragile copies and will scan that.

I am less likely to get epub or other modern ebook formats. I still recall the situation where people who purchased some of George Orwell’s books had them withdrawn from their Kindle devices by Amazon. Hence, I would only have something in that system that I would treat like a disposable, reading copy, paperback. I can’t consider those ebooks as permanent. For one thing, a proprietary format can be abandoned at any time by a company that feels that it is no longer marketable. PDF (and I guess epub) is a standard that can be read by many devices so I feel OK with that so long as I keep moving the electronic copies around from storage medium to storage medium or even online storage.

I’m a little dismayed that some modern mystery series are issuing short stories or novellas in ebook format (which I have purchased) but not in any physical form. I’d like to have these, even as a chapbook, so that it is mine as long as I have it.

The other area where electronic books has changed the way I do things is research. I can use Google Books and various newspaper archives far more effectively than I can working with libraries who can’t be bothered to keep anything but the latest reference and fiction books or microfilm. A microfilmed newspaper is mind numbing to scroll through for hours if you are looking for something but don’t know a particular date and page for an item. I would like to see more newspapers available in this way, especially for certain areas that are not so represented (Elizabeth and Newark, NJ for example).

Readers of blogs are already those who do some of their reading in an electronic form so I don’t expect any 100% luddites here. The percentage between ebook and hbook “owning” and “reading” probably varies with each person.


BananaReader October 12, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Thank you for your comprehensive response, James. We’re glad you shared your experience with us and look forward to your future feedback.


Debra Harrison October 12, 2012 at 7:11 am

I have a personal library AND an e-reader. I like the convenience of the e-reader (always having a lot of books close at hand). I used to have boxes of books every month to dispose of that I had read but did not feel I wanted as part of my library. I no longer have this issue. I am able to focus my energy and efforts to develop a very personal, lovely library. If I happen to read an exceptional book and want to add it to my collection, I can then find a first edition (signed, preferably) for my library.

I don’t see it as an “either or” situation. The e-reader is merely a tool that makes my avid reading habit a bit easier and tends to free up a bit of money for my library that I might have spent on full price hardbacks (for newer releases).

Hooray for the e-reader but a bigger HOORAY for my lovely personal library.

I enjoy your site, by the way and always look forward to your posts. Thanks!


BananaReader October 12, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Thank you for sharing, Debra. We appreciate support from readers like you who keep us going strong. Enjoy your combination library.


Adeline Seekel October 12, 2012 at 2:54 am

You make a point which I don’t agree with concerning theft. Although its true that there are not many instances of robbing an “H reader” of his treasures and running off in his get away van, I believe it is not uncommon for an E reader to be the target of one’s steal. And unfortunately, if you lose your electronic device you lose ALL your books–since the convenience of carrying your library with you at all times with ease comes with the risk of losing them just as easily. For example, devices such as the iPad or Samsung Galaxy, since they offer so much more than electronic books, are popular objects of hoard.


BananaReader October 12, 2012 at 8:42 pm

You make an excellent point, Adeline. Thank you for your contribution. We appreciated your support within our article, most especially. Please keep us abreast of your progress as a nurse, and as an avid reader and devotee to our site.


lizzyoungbookseller October 12, 2012 at 12:27 am

Thanks for posting, NYTimes Wednesday Oct. 10 editorial section has an article that asks some similar questions.


BananaReader October 12, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Thank you Lizzy. I have not yet read the Times article, but will certainly look for it now. I had written this piece last week so the Times author and I must have been typing away simultaneously on the same subject. It is a frequent debate in the media, to be sure. We appreciate your input. Happy reading.


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