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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Case for Books

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, October 11, 2009

“The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future” is a new book by Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Libraries.

 

He is a pioneer in the field of the history of the book, and offers an in-depth review of the book from its earliest beginnings to its changing role in today’s world.

 

Darnton makes the point, “we cannot envisage the future – or make sense of the present – unless we study the past.”

 

“Not necessarily because history repeats itself or teaches us lessons, but because it can help to orient us when faced with the challenges of new technologies.”

 

He begins with the fact that over the many years of his profession in libraries, he has been invited to many conferences to discuss the upcoming “death of the book.”

 

I would agree, in my 37 years of attending library conferences, there was and still is the tendency to have one program about how computers or some yet-unnamed technology will replace the book.

 

The fact is that the book is not dead.

 

The R.R. Bowker Co., who keeps track of publishing issues, shows that the number of books published every year worldwide has grown from 700,000 titles in 1998 to nearly 1 million this year.

 

Darnton feels that the impact of new technologies and the perception that we are in a new age of information comes from a lack of knowledge of history among Americans today.

 

E-books and the various new devices on the market for information transmission only account for less than one percent of the expenditures on books in the U.S.

 

History shows us that one medium does not displace another in our society, at least in the short term.

 

Manuscripts were produced after Gutenberg began mass publications.

 

Radio did not replace the newspaper, and television did not destroy the radio.

 

The Internet did not stop people from watching TV.

 

Darnton’s theme, repeated over and over in his book, is “digitize and democratize.”

 

Today, with the Internet, we have the opportunity to provide access to a huge quantity of reading material, in a scope unknown before.

 

Looking back, the spread of the availability of reading material has changed our society over and over in ages past.

 

The ability to digitize mass quantities of reading materials will help, or it could stagnate society as a price is placed on access.

 

Will the laws of the marketplace take over and you will have to pay Google for access to their digitized library, or will be all have access for the common good?

 

The typewriter, the post card, and the handwritten letter have gone by the wayside.

 

Eighty percent of silent films, and fifty percent of films made before World War II are now gone as the marketplace failed to preserve them.

 

Will we continue to allow our past to disappear as the marketplace has no place for them?

 

I was fascinated with two points that Darnton made in his book.

 

People used to read a book for pleasure or information.  Now we read parts of a book searching for information, aided by keyword searching for specifics.

 

People have lost the ability to research and produce the result of research.  Now we assemble bits and pieces of information and assemble them into what we assume is the “end product.”

 

Secondly, we are losing our desire to read and study history so as to learn from it.

 

Great writers of the past would read and write their thoughts, and people would study them.

 

Now we seem to have lost the venue for discussion.  Now we just yell at each other, and capitalize all of the letters in our blogs to shout.

 

Maybe we need more libraries, or more hours for the existing libraries.