Across The Digital Divide: E-Books And The Poor

I was touched by the blog post that Seanan McGuire (aka author Mira Grant) wrote about the way that the so-called “death of print” is a threat to America’s poor. That is to say, this trend towards e-only publications — the result of the growth of the electronic book and device market over the past few years (and in one giant leap last winter) — is a move with many ramifications. 

Several of these changes are positive. For starters, authors are able to get their books to fans more quickly and often with a much small price tag for new releases. As a reader, one of my favorite aspects of my Kindle is that I can fit far more books on my e-reader than I would ever be able to house in my tiny apartment. I also love that while my Kindle is the size of a single book, it gives me access to many more novels so there’s no more sitting bored on the train, or wherever I am when I finish the book I’m reading. These benefits mean that I’ve adopted e-books as an inexpensive, way to devour more books than ever before.

However, I have to admit that I’d never truly considered what the e-book revolution could — and in some cases, already does — mean for the one out of every five people who are living below America’s poverty line. In her post, McGuire shares her own experiences growing up poor, in order to illustrate the many ways that books are an extremely important a resource, and goes on to say:

“... every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to "Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier," what I hear, however unintentionally, is "Poor people don't deserve to read."

Her blog post makes the point that while there are some e-books available from free sources, e-readers still require readers to lay down an initial amount of money, these days around over a hundred dollars, which is a prohibitively high cost. Additionally, one needs the Internet and electricity to access those e-books. Alternatively, print books are relatively easy to obtain and can be read wherever there is a light source. (McGuire also points out that print books are less likely to get stolen than an e-reader).

If society forges ahead into an all-e-book era of publishing, we will have inadvertently created a world where the poor — who cannot necessarily acquire computers, e-readers, Internet access or electricity — have no access to books. McGuire cautions:

"We cannot forget the digital divide. And we can't—we just can't—be so excited over something new and shiny that we walk away and knowingly leave people on the other side."

By the time I was done reading this intensely moving post, I wanted to reply to McGuire as over 608 others have already done. Their comments are full of similar stories about rising from poverty, trying to make a difference and those like me, whose eyes had just been opened to the problem.

Inspired by her post, which I recommend everyone read, I’ve compiled a list of five organizations that help get books to people in need:

Sheltering Books Inc: This is a program that donates books for women and children to homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters and residential treatment centers across the USA. 

Reader to Reader: This charity delivers books to school and public libraries in the USA’s poorest communities. They particularly target inner-city schools, poor rural towns and Native American Reservations. (This program also works to supply books and computers to organizations helping people in South America and Africa.)

First Book: This organization supplies children in need in American and Canada with new books and is branching into providing digital resources as well.

Street Books: This is a Portland, Oregon based program, which in it’s own words is “a bicycle-powered mobile library, serving people who live outside”.

ProLiteracy: This final charity isn’t strictly about giving books to those in need, but instead offers opportunities to empower would-be readers. ProLiteracy welcomes both donations and volunteers to help teach people how to read. 

If you have a program that you use to help give the gift of reading or have thoughts about the threat of the “digital divide” in the wake of the e-book revolution, leave your comment below. For more e-book coverage be sure to check out our Everything E-book Page!