When the cloud becomes our library …

Published 9:24 am Friday, July 12, 2013

Column: Notes From Home, by David Behling

The aroma hits me as soon as I walk in the door: old paper, old leather … a certain mustiness in the air that pleases. This aroma holds promises of treasures beyond counting and arouses me like no other perfume, stimulating both body and mind.

I love the smell of libraries and bookstores. Nostalgia takes me back to the many different places where I’ve scoured bookshelves. One of the first things I look for when traveling or exploring the new communities to which I’ve moved are bookstores and libraries. In fact, one of my disappointments when matriculating as a student at a German university was discovery that the library operated as a “closed stacks” institution; only the librarians were able to experience the shelves of books firsthand. I was limited to the bookshops in town, which I frequented on a weekly basis (often undermining my monthly budget).

Email newsletter signup

I also love reading newspapers in the morning, an experience I wrote about a few years ago. Opening up that morning newspaper and sipping my tea while I read news and comics sets the stage for the rest of my day. Part of the pleasure involves sharing sections with other family members as they come to the table for breakfast. Any mornings — like the ones in hotels during business trips — feel incomplete when I can’t complete this ritual.

Reading books also involves a ritual, although, with books, a beverage is not necessary; the book itself is sufficient. Book reading involves quiet time, a stable temperature (not too warm, not too cold), a chair in which to sit comfortably, and just the right amount of light. These conditions are not always easy to find. For example, I used to be able to comfortably read on airplanes when I traveled, but those days are long past.

And if I am going to enjoy it, what I’m reading needs to be printed on paper. I don’t read digital texts for pleasure . . . perhaps because I have to read so many documents published that way at work.

There really isn’t a clear or logical reason for this. I just don’t like the technology, which makes me a neo-Luddite, I suppose. So be it.

I feel this way about music and movies, too. Except that with music and movies, it’s not about an all-encompassing, ritualistic experience. With music and movies it’s more about possession of a physical artifact. If I don’t have a CD or DVD, I don’t feel as if I really “own” a copy of the music. This is a secondary issue for books, magazines and newspapers, but it’s also important. If I have to embrace e-readers and claim the digital cloud as my library in order to be considered a true geek, then I am no longer interested in the label.

When it comes to the digital “files” for music, movies and reading material that come from and are stored in the cloud, I have too many questions. Who owns the books and music we’ve purchased? Can we lend them to others without breaking the law?

If I need more space for my library at home, I buy more bookcases. If an e-reader or mp3 player fills up, where do I store the music I still want to keep somewhere, just not right at my fingertips? Back in the cloud? Erase it from my device and trust that I can reload the files from Amazon or iTunes when I want them again without having to pay a second time?

The cloud today stores books, newspapers, magazines, music and movies, but it doesn’t make those “items” feel more accessible, just temporary, as if I’m only leasing the items and permission to “access” them can be withdrawn at any point. Libraries in different communities are discovering that getting eBooks via an online service means that you lose the books if you change providers. The books they thought they “owned” disappeared when they stopped paying the monthly fees.

If that happened to me, it would be a disaster. So, skeptical of the new ways of reading (and listening and watching), I will remain bound to the solid artifacts on my shelves, inhaling the dust (and getting paper cuts, too, no doubt) for the foreseeable future.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.