We are not yet at the point of demise for the printed book. Not yet. Not imminently. However, we do now have a viable and attractive challenger in the electronic book. While we think little of dropping the occasional $2.99 on a discounted Kindle edition of a Christian living title, more serious libraries merit more serious consideration. You will gain or lose little by reading my most recent book in print or on your Kindle, but what about those serious works—the commentaries, the church histories, the dictionaries and encyclopedias and concordances? Should you buy those in print or in bits and bytes? Many pastors, many scholars, many students, many people who just plain love to read and research are asking the question.
Many of them are asking about Logos in particular. Logos is near the cutting edge when it comes to a Christian reference library. They are at every major conference, they put a lot of time and attention into attracting pastors, scholars, and anyone else who is interested in serious theological works. They offer a great product. Many people I know are considering trying Logos, or are dabbling in it and are thinking about jumping in with both feet. I even know a few people who have sold their entire print libraries in favor of electronic-only. I know many others who are suspicious of the whole idea.
In this article I want to examine some of the benefits and drawbacks of Logos compared to old fashioned print books. My purpose is to help you think through the options.
Apples & Oranges
It is important from the outset that we do not make too rigid a comparison between a printed library and an electronic library—between your father's library and your son's library. While a printed book and a Logos book may contain the same words, they are different media and each has strengths and weaknesses. We need to resist making a 1:1 comparison between the two.
The greatest strength of Logos is in its wider system. What a Logos book offers that a printed book does not is integration into that system. When you add a new book to your Logos library, you increase the power and usefulness of the entire system. It is less like adding a printed book to a bookcase and more like adding memory to a computer or a new Christian with his spiritual gifts to your congregation—it improves and strengthens the entire system.
The most important part of the system is in its power to find and relate information across an entire library. With a print library, it may take me hours of searching bookcases, looking for Scripture indexes, and referencing endnotes to find all my library has to tell me about a particular verse or subject. Logos makes it as easy as typing in a keyword or clicking a Scripture verse. Within seconds it will search an entire library, organize the results, and show the best ones; one more click will begin a deeper search. Logos also makes it easy to do word studies and to find information about the Greek and Hebrew. It allows notes and easily formats footnotes. It is feature-rich.
Apples 2.0 & Oranges 2.0
We cannot make too strict a comparison between Logos and a printed book. We should also be careful not to make too strict a comparison between Logos and a Kindle book or another ebook format. Here is the difference: Kindle is primarily for reading; Logos is primarily for researching. You may notice that a Logos book tend to be more expensive than the same book in those other formats. We see lots of $2.99 sales for Kindle books but not many at all for Logos. This is because Logos books are specially prepared so their Scripture references can be clicked to immediately display the appropriate passage, so their prominent headings will appear in searches, and so on. This extra preparation carries an extra cost. Again, you are not simply adding a book to your library; you are strengthening a system.
On Building a Library
Here are several principles to consider when it comes to building a Logos library.
Logos Needs Resources
Logos cannot be better than the resources it contains. There are some great features built right into Logos, but if you are preparing sermons or writing a book that requires a good bit of research, don't expect that simply buying and installing the software will do a whole lot for you. Your experience of Logos will vary proportionally with the resources you purchase for it. In other words, if you want to get a lot out of Logos, be prepared to spend a lot on it.
Quality > Quantity
Earlier I wrote that adding resources to Logos increases the power of the entire system. That needs some nuance: adding good resources increases the power of the system. Adding junk will not do you any good. This means that as you grow a Logos library, you need to emphasize quality over quantity, and ultimately aim for quantity of quality. The difference between Logos' different base levels is entirely a difference of the quantity of the resources you will receive with it (the base software is the same no matter which package you buy). Some of those resources are excellent and ones you will use regularly; others are not. Instead of spending extra up-front to buy a massive quantity of resources you may never use, consider spending less up front and then concentrating on purchasing resources you know you will use. After all, one great commentary on Ephesians will be far more valuable than three mediocre ones.
You May Not Save Money
We tend to believe that digital resources are necessarily less expensive than printed resources, but this is not always the case, and especially so where there is little price competition. If you want the 14 commentaries in the Pillar New Testament series (an excellent investment as you build a library around quality) you will pay $497.25 for the Logos editions or $461.92 for the printed editions (at Westminster Books). The disparity opens up all the more if we account for used or imperfect editions of the printed books. To take another example, the recent volume on Galatians (in the ZECNT) from Grant Osborne is $39.99 for Logos and $36.07 at Westminster Books. You may save money building your Christian living library for Kindle, but you won't save money building your research library in Logos.
The book is a stable format. We know exactly what we will find when we open a book and we do not expect it to change in the near future. Two years from now books will still read left to right and top to bottom and be printed using clear and simple fonts. Logos is much less stable both in its display, which has changed significantly over the years, and in its content format. It appears to be evolving in good directions, but we are still at the mercy of the software developers in the way we will experience and interact with our Logos content. When a new version comes out, you may find yourself having to adapt to a whole new kind of experience.
Factors to Consider
I want to offer several factors you should consider as you think about moving to Logos.
You don't actually own your Logos books. Not really. Instead, you own a license to the content you've acquired which is typical of electronic media. Logos' EULA is helpful in discussing distinctions you've never had to think about with printed books.
You may transfer your licenses to someone else. One thing that has concerned me about digital libraries is whether or not I can give it or will it to someone else. As far as I know, Amazon does not allow this. Logos, though, does allow you to transfer your license to another person if you wish to give away all or part of your library. Note, though, that if you purchase books as a collection (such as a whole commentary set), you will not be able to give away only one volume of that set; it's all or nothing.
You cannot lend your books. Logos allows you to transfer your license, but not to loan it to someone else. As far as I know, you cannot loan or borrow Logos books.
You need hardware too. The commitment to Logos is a commitment to keep your computer hardware up-to-date. Logos does not demand a cutting edge computer system, but it will definitely work better on a new one than a very old one. Once you commit to the software, you are also committing to regularly updating your hardware.
Logos may not be around forever. I don't expect that Logos will go anywhere in the near future. The company is giving every indication of health and growth. However, the history of computing tells us that at some point the company may disappear or file formats may change. You will still own that content license, of course, but that won't do you much good if the company ceases to exist. Then again, you could have a fire or flood and see your paper library disappear as well. Such is life in this world!
Prepare to Choose
Some people have fully transitioned from paper reading to electronic; they now prefer reading on a device. Others will never make that transition and have no desire to. Each medium offers advantages and disadvantages. It seems increasingly clear that the future of reading is electronic, but it is also clear that it will be some time before the printed book becomes scarce.
I think we are coming to the time—though we are not there yet—when each of us will need to make our choice and commit to it. Having a library, and especially a research or reference library, that is fragmented across print, Kindle, Logos and other formats, each of which is incompatible with the others, is clunky and inconvenient. Far better to make a decision to build in a single direction. It may be that we need to allow the electronic media to evolve a little bit farther before we make our choice, but we will not be able to delay indefinitely.
I believe Logos is at the point where we can transition to it confidently and where the benefits outweigh the risks. Speaking personally, I remain committed to paper (somewhat irrationally, I admit) and continue to wait for Logos to mature. But I foresee a day when I will take the plunge.