The pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton has written another personal essay for the Chronicle about books and libraries, this one titled Red-Hot Library Porn. Benton, an associate professor of English, reminds us that academic library users also include non-millenials who get their jollies more from dusty old tomes than the latest electronic gadgets. After a literate review of some sumptuous sounding books about the world’s grand libraries, Benton goes all inevitable on us and indulges in the idea that the inevitable future is one of libraries without books.
In 20 years, college students will regard books the way they now regard 33 RPM records: a quaint technology, warmer perhaps, but ultimately the province of musty antiquarians.
Although I forgive Benton, most of us know that to casually toss off the idea that technology will soon render books obsolete is a simple mistake that is made over and over again by people who focus solely on technology but ignore the economic and social systems in which books are embedded. As Priscilla Murphy, who traces this thinking back to 1894, puts it in Books Are Dead, Long Live Books:
Looking at the technological possibilities is not the same as identifying corporate priorities, school board politics, teenagers’ habits, or advertisers whims. Books are, finally, intricately interrelated to the rest of the media system – economically, socially, intellectually, even symbolically; and those who have envisioned or feared their wholesale removal from the system have generally underestimated that involvement.
And yet. And yet, after ten or twenty years of the Google Library Project, will academic library interiors indeed begin to resemble minimalist art installations, as Benton suggests?
I taught a library session recently for a class on American Empire in Latin America. A student wanted to research the history of tourism, specifically the history of cruises. I did a search in Google books on “crusing history” and partly by accident stumbled upon an 1895 imprint of Cruising among the Caribees from Stanford University Libraries. Compared to NetLibary or Gutenberg electronic books, this digitized book is very easy to read and “navigate.” The digitization includes the cover and the giftbook plate. Chapter 3 includes information about the cruise ship: its name, its history, and the company that ran it, all nice little leads for a student beginning research and inquiry into the cruise industry and how it fit into the global economy of the early 1900s:
The steamship Madiana lay wrapped in a fleecy mantle beside the wharf. She is large and handsome, a powerful and well-appointed vessel of 3,050 tons, orginally built for English service to the Cape of Good Hope and specially adapted for cruising in hot latitudes. In 1893 she was refitted for the service of the Quebec Steamship Company between New York and the Windward Islands. What tales these ships could tell!
What tales indeed. And now you don’t have to be at Stanford to read about them. Perhaps this is the great promise of the Google Library Project, and the promise that the academic library of the future, although holding fewer physical volumes, will not be souless after all.