Eventually, this will come about. Paper books sales are declining while e-book sales rise. With Gutenberg and other projects like Google Books, we are getting to the point where a vast amount of public domain literature is available. What remains to be freely (and legally) accessible online is the vast amount of copyrighted matter. DRM and other techniques are being used to protect this IP when its sold for devices, but in the process this hampers the concept of borrowed library book. To implement the idea of a 'universal digital library' where such material is easily available on a borrowed basis, we will need some way to borrow that DRM key.
Some cautionary comments about the impact of Ebooks on the brain by David Gelertner:
The most important ongoing change to reading itself in today’s online environment is the cheapening of the word. ... the narrowing time between writing for and publishing on the Web is helping to kill the art of editing by crushing it to death. The Internet makes words as cheap and as significant as Cheese Doodles. ...
The tools (as usual) are neutral. It’s up to us to insist that onscreen reading enhance, not replace, traditional book reading. It’s up to us to remember that the medium is not the message; that the meaning and music of the words is what matters, not the glitzy vehicle they arrive in.
Postscript: Between starting this article and finishing it, I: opened up 2 dozen Firefox tabs on topics relating to e-books; read reviews of the Barnes & Noble Nook (a Kindle competitor); downloaded Linux E-pub reader Fbreader; read several powerpoint presentations from IDPF's events (IDPF is International Digital Publishing Forum); perused the Gutenberg list of 30,000 public domain titles; picked up my daughter from a High School Robotic competition, then went off for Chinese for dinner with kids, then came home and put the young ones to bed; then re-visited more sites; then dove into three texts downloaded from Google books as epubs and PDFs including P G Wodehouse and a history of the Revolutionary War; and found that last links via E-Reads.com and a blog item by Mark Curtis touting his book DISTRACTION with this marvelous quote:
As e-books move out of their infancy and into a dominant role in the reading life of our society, it is imperative that we recognize the significant psychological differences between reading on screen and reading on paper.
Touche. I have managed to touch dozens and dozens of thought-streams, dipping toes and fingers, and briefly the whole mind, but grazing and moving on, with no more than a quick perusal for most sources. This was non-linear, random-walk, reading. It is imperative that we understand that millions of books at one's fingertips - the Universal Digital Library - may change what those books do for us and mean to us.
UPDATE 10/25: How close we are to universal access to massive numbers of public domain books hit home with this news from March this year - a Sony deal with Google books:
Sony Electronics has struck a deal with Google in a major endorsement that makes more than half a million public domain books from its digitization project available for free on the Sony Reader in its e-book store.