Book Soup

Kevin Kelly has a manifesto, “Scan This Book,” in the New York Times Magazine. He suggests readers are about to enter paradise as books are digitized. Not only will the third world have access to the world’s greatest libraries (terrific; can we have reliable electricity with that?) but by swimming in a liquid sea of book soup everything written will be reinscribed, shared, modified in creative new ways, uncovered, linked, reborn. “In the clash between the conventions of the book, and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail.”

There is always in these utopian dreams the assumption that books within covers are separate and unsearchable and readers who read printed books have never shared their experiences, as if sharing and blending can only happen if the texts are digital. Libraries don’t lock books up; they put them together so they can be discovered. And readers have always shuffled, even when what they’re shuffling is on paper pages. Will discovery be easier with an electronic search engine? Certainly – if you’re looking for something specific. But a small library is sometimes better for discovery than a huge one. It’s just a different kind of discovery.

Digitizing books does highlight the problem of using “copy” as a key concept of law in a digital age. But being able to search the content of books online won’t fundamentally change the way we read or write. We already tag, shuffle, share, and reinscribe. The only real change in how we do this will come if publishers react to the “threat” of access (or the opportunity of licensing access) by moving to a pay-per-view model. Or if the invitation to modify texts means erasing the embarrassing bits of history.

The “revolutionary” affordances that Kelly describes of the digital library are true of the traditional library. Let’s hope we don’t lose them as publishers overreact to manifestos like these – or as people in power try to rewrite the record or sell it to the highest bidder. As Linda Kerber, President of the American Historical Association, points out in a frightening essay in the Chron, this utopian dream has a dark side. If we’re not vigilant, we could lose our national memory.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

5 thoughts on “Book Soup

  1. I’m glad you raised the electricity issue. I’ve wondered about this as libraries have cancelled print subscriptions to journals because of online availability, and not having the means to pay for both. How do you spell “p-o-w-e-r o-u-t-a-g-e”? I also wonder if digitization without print “backups” would make it easier for governments or corporations for that matter, to restrict access. Your point about readers sharing being nothing new is also well-taken. Also, should all this information become more easily accessible the need for information literacy becomes even more critical.

  2. As I was reading Kelly’s essay, I just kept thinking of Ecclesiastes 1.2. (See what I did there? Aren’t I clever? I just did what he said is going to be some amazing revolutionary thing, I linked to a snippet of text. I wonder if someone in Shanghai is grooving off this wisdom from their ipod right now, uniting East and West and making the universe whole again. Uh right.) So yeah what Barbara said. A lot of this has already been possible through the traditional print system. A lot of digital linking is possible right now. To the extent that it is, good, let’s continue! But let’s not go overboard, it’s not some revolutionary development that’s going to smash ignorance for all time in all places. The article is full of distortions, unargued for assumptions and inaccuracies. Perhaps worst of all it promotes the “everything myth”: the idea that everything is or will soon be available everywhere at any time for everyone. I did like the pictures though.

  3. I, too, wrote about this article, but I see it more as a manifesto for library-as service over library-as-place and less as an issue of Utopian dreaming. The industrial age is giving way to the information age.

    There is an analogy here that I’m starting to find useful. In the industrial age of librarianship, our focus was on inventory control of our physical items, manual description of physical items under our stewardship, and services revolving around human (professional?) intervention in connecting users with the physical items. Our job could be quite different in the information age: preservation of digital items, application of algorithms on digital items to extract meaningful description, and maintainers of systems that allow information seekers to connect with each other in the pursuit of the most relevant digital items.

    By the way, I’m not advocating to the extreme of the a library-as-service versus library-as place spectrum. “Library-as-place” is definitely a service, but one where the service user may not be coming to us to use our physical items in our physical location.

  4. It’s interesting to go back to the library leaders of the early 20th century, who were interested in making libraries more efficient and factory-like in order to be relevant. (John Cotton Dana argued libraries should avoid looking like palaces or mortuaries and instead base their design of “book laboratories” on “the workshop, the factory, the office building.”) So certainly keeping libraries’ image consistent with whatever the ruling paradigm of the day is nothing new.

    Your blog posting raises the same issue in a different way that Siva Viadhyanathan did in chastising libraries for partnering with Google rather than doing the digitization ourselves with our values built into the system. And you ask the excellent question: “Does our profession have a role to play in an era where the content of books can more readily be found, annotated, cited, and shared online than they can be in a physical space? What is the library of the future?”

    Given “library as place” is such a hot issue, that public library visits have doubled in the past ten years, and that people persist in wanting a space that is somehow reserved for the kinds of things you do in a library – whether that happens in a virtual community or in a physical space – this is an intriguing moment in our profession.

    If the content that was the library’s raison d’etre in the past becomes untethered to the library, as it already has to some extent, why does our identity persist as something society values? Will Dana’s “book laboratory” give way to some sort of intentional and vibrant nexis of the “public sphere”? Because it seems to me that’s exactly what makes libraries a unique social institution. And I suspect a lot of our public recognizes that even if we’re feeling like bewildered victims of identity theft.

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