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(+) Are Digital Genealogy Libraries Going to Replace Traditional Books?

10 May 2024 5:21 PM | Anonymous

Is it time to stop the presses?

It seems that every week I report in this newsletter about more and more genealogy books that are being converted to electronic format. Sure, old books have been digitized for several years now. However, even new books are now appearing as electronic publications. Some are published on CD-ROM disks but nowadays more and more old genealogy books are being loaded onto Internet web servers and being offered online on the World Wide Web, sometimes free of charge and in other cases they may be offered for a modest fee.

One example is the 6th Edition of The Genealogist's Address Book, by Elizabeth Petty Bentley, published some years ago by Genealogical Publishing Company. It is available electronically or as a traditional (paper) book. The first four editions of The Genealogist's Address Book were printed only on paper, but the economics caught up with reference books. Each new edition cost more and more to print. As prices escalated, sales decreased. Many people could not afford the higher prices. The latest 6th Edition with 799 pages now costs $83.50 for the paper version, but the electronic version costs only $46.95. I assume the electronic version  has sold more copies than has the paper version.

This is only one such example; there are many more. Is this an indication of the end of book publishing as we know it? Will simple economics drive printed books out of existence?

Many bibliophiles cringed when the Internet search engine Google announced plans to digitize the book collections of five major libraries. To be sure, there isn't as much personal "touch and feel" with an electronic version as there is with a printed version. I have read many comments about this, such as, "no one will ever want to read an entire novel on their computer screen," or, "online books will succeed only when every bathroom has a high-speed Internet connection!" I recently read another statement from a librarian: "There’s just a coziness with a book. The smell. Can you smell a laptop?"

I believe that librarian's view is a bit too simplistic. Very few people would suggest that all books should be printed forever on paper. In fact, I now own several full-length novels that are stored on my computer or on my Kindle (or in BOTH places!

For the rest of this article, let's divide the topic of books into two major categories: (1.) books that are meant to be read from cover to cover (such as a novel) and (2.) reference books that typically are only read in small segments at a time (such as an encyclopedia or many genealogy books).

While I love my Kindle, the state-of-the-art of such “electronic book readers” will obviously continue to improve. The computers and electronic "book readers" ten or twenty years from now probably will be wafer-thin, flexible screens the size of a piece of paper that you can roll up and stuff into a pocket or purse. They will produce no more glare than a piece of paper, perhaps even less. They will be easier to read than paper. They will operate on batteries that last for twenty, fifty, or even more hours before needing to be recharged. Today's "book readers" are already about the size of a paperback novel and weigh less than one pound. As technology continues to improve, they will become even smaller and lighter. Until that day arrives, however, nobody will want to read “War and Peace” on a computer screen while sunbathing at the beach.

Reference books are an entirely different matter. Encyclopedias, operators' manuals, and other reference materials are generally read only a few pages at a time. Such reference material seems to be much better suited for online distribution. The bulk of a computer and the screen glare do not seem like major issues when reading only a few pages. Indeed, online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia and Encarta have seen skyrocketing success even as printed reference books (Encyclopædia Britannica) produce reduced sales figures every year. Actually, since 2016, the Encyclopædia Britannica has been published exclusively as an online encyclopaedia.

The Internet Archive has even created greater success than has Google. Located at, the Internet Archive is a non-profit online library containing millions of FREE books, movies, software, music, websites, and more. If you are not yet using the Internet Archive, you need to start NOW!

Think of all the genealogy books you have consulted. Aren't most of them reference books? Didn't you only consult a page or two, or maybe five or ten pages? How many genealogy books have you read from cover to cover? I bet it is very few. The Genealogists' Address Book is an excellent example: it is a reference book, and nobody will ever be spellbound by it as they read it from cover to cover.

The conversion of genealogy books to digital formats would seem to make sense, even for "War and Peace," "Gone with the Wind" or "The Da Vinci Code." 

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