By Paul Duckworth, MLS
It goes without saying that most of us who work in libraries love books. What do we do, then, when people start sounding the death knell for the printed word? Some of us may be dismayed by the statistics about print that we read and hear, including the news release from Amazon that it now sells more Kindle-formatted books than those in traditional format. But the statistics do not indicate any clear death notice, and they fail to tell us the real story.
Let’s consider this.
It’s clear that those heralding the coming death of print never sat in on the university forecasting class taught by noted IBM business planner Ollie Wight in the mid-decades of the last century. Each of Wight’s opening lectures began with Wight stating, “Remember that all forecasts are wrong from the moment they are made.” And so it goes with the predictions about the death of print. These predictions seemed to take on a strident pitch with the emergence of portable electronic tablets more than a decade ago. These days, amidst the proliferation of electronic reference databases, downloadable library e-books, and the ease of hyperlinking, what thinking person wouldn’t wonder how soon the obituary of print would be—pardon me—printed?
I am struck by sociology professor and author John Thompson’s (“Merchants of Culture”) observation that “Few … challenges were foreseen in the feverish hype of the 1990s that the days of the book were numbered. Paper texts were clunky and old fashioned; digital versions were smart and sleek.” Many have jumped onto the perceived coffin of books, newspapers, and magazines and enthusiastically heralded a new day. Indeed, yes, it is a new day—with many more to come for those of us who work in libraries. The rapid changes facilitated by technology will continue and the pace will become even faster than it is at the moment. However, does this mean that print will soon be dead? Perhaps not. When radio appeared, forecasters predicted that newspapers would disappear. The advent of television led to the same prediction for radio.
Going back to 1894, there was speculation that the (then) new technology of phonograph records (à la audiobooks) would bring about the demise of books. Earlier cries were that the newspaper would kill the book. Today’s newspaper, while certainly challenged, is still with us, as is the book it was going to replace. Except for high-end audiophiles, the phonograph record is dead. So is its successor, the audiotape. For some of its applications, print is in great decline. Think about reference collections today versus twenty years ago.
Humans, wired as we are by our genetic heritage, tend to like tactile objects. Gutenberg’s invention was a vast improvement over cuneiform tablets and parchment scrolls. Do digital editions and databases offer a similar leaping improvement over print? We humans prefer convenience and practicality along with the sensory and tactile. You, the reader, are right now looking into an electronic screen, not a printed page. When you pack for a long trip, you may well be packing your iPad or other portable reading device along with a laptop. Who wants to lug around a suitcase made heavier by adding several books and magazines? So, yes, reading digitally is sensible, practical, and convenient. And its integration into our daily lives and into libraries is a no-brainer.
Certainly, digital reading offers splendid possibilities and conveniences. What librarian wants to return to the days of hunting for magazine back issues, finding missing or mutilated copies, or lugging reference books around that are too expensive to be duplicated at all branch locations? Digital reading is wonderful for some applications—but not for all of us all the time.
Stephen Fry, comedian, actor, and writer, summed things up well when he wrote: “This is the point. One technology doesn’t replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” I think this is where we are in the print versus digital buzz. Print is holding its place well for many applications and users, while the adoption of digital formats continues to become more widespread. It isn’t one against the other. There aren’t winners and losers. We simply have more choices these days.
I believe that print is going to maintain a presence in our lives—for the present and near future, and probably for a long time. Why? Many people prefer it for long reading and various aesthetic reasons. Who doesn’t thrill at receiving a handwritten card or letter from a friend? What child does not delight at having an adult share a picture book with them? What emotions do we experience when we pull a long-treasured book off our personal bookshelf and find a pressed flower, a scribbled note, or a bookmark that triggers memories? A while back, I relocated to another city and my books were stored in heavy boxes for a few months. I was able to put them back onto bookshelves recently. The experience was more than I expected it would be. I was so moved that I began to write:
Print and digital are close cousins, not warring tribes. Underneath the emotional aspects of an attachment to print, the solid ground is that print works for us. And digital works for us. New technology benefits us and gives us choices we did not have before. The thrill of the new can sometimes obscure the benefits of the old-fashioned. We winnow our way as librarians and help translate the truths of the library into today’s vernacular. We flow with and help interpret the tide and lend a hand to customers as we explore and adapt today’s technologies.
Premature Obituaries for Printed Books:
- “Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools.” —Written by Thomas Edison, in the summer of 1913
- In 1966, in a Life magazine profile, Marshall McLuhan lumped books with other antiques: “Clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs — all are obsolete.”
- “The physical book will be dead in five years.” —Declared by Nicholas Negroponte, father of the One Laptop Per Child project, at a conference in 2010
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