Coffee House or Library?

Why not both?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College, discusses the social future of books in an article that has just appeared in the Journal of Electronic Publishing (which is published by the University of Michigan library’s Scholarly Publishing Office). Fitzpatrick examines CommentPress, an open source blog-like extension of digital books that enables a community of readers and scholars to add to, interpret, and discuss a text, as one instance of what the digital book might become.

CommentPress grew out of two assumptions: that “something in the current system of academic publishing is broken, and that radical change will be necessary to fix it; and second, that the purposes of such publishing must be regrounded in the desire for communication amongst a body of scholarly peers.” She discusses the second point in terms of the library and the coffee house:

The library model of textual circulation, once understood to be a communal enterprise, now comes to seem profoundly individualistic: books are checked out and read by one person at a time, in retreat from interaction with the world. Indeed, when we imagine scholarly interactions with the bulk of printed texts today, particularly within the humanities, the primary images that arise are of isolation: individual scholars hunched over separately bound texts, each working individually, whether in their separate offices or even collectively, in the silent reading rooms of the major research libraries. . . .

[I]n attempting to reproduce the form of the book electronically, technologists have for too long focused on the isolated practices of reading — the individual reader, alone with a screen — rather than the communal practices of discussion and debate to which those practices are, on some level at least, meant to give rise. Scholars operate in a range of conversations, from classroom conversations with students to conference conversations with colleagues; scholars need to have available to them not simply the library model of texts circulating amongst individual readers but also the coffee house model of public reading and debate.

The academic blog operates within the pamphlet and newspaper tradition of the coffee house, but the book remains lodged in a less-interactive mode, partly because long texts don’t lend themselves to the back-and-forth and free-form argument of a blog. Yet reading has always had a social component that Fitzgerald feels should be included in the digital book.

Fitzgerald looks to libraries as an example of how these two modes of intellectual engagement – individual study and group discourse – are merging, and she suggests that this blending of the individual and the social should become a model for scholarly publishing.

One question that remains is whether the library model of the circulation of single-author, long-form texts, meant to be consumed in relative isolation, over longer periods of time, might similarly benefit from the kinds of interaction that blogs produce, and if so, how. The library in such a model would become not simply a repository but instead fully part of a communications circuit, one that facilitates discourse rather than enforcing silence. Many libraries are already seeking ways to create more interaction within their walls; my institution’s library, for instance, hosts a number of lecture series and has a weekly “game night,” each designed to help some group of its users interact not simply with the library’s holdings, but with one another. Games may seem a frivolous example of the contemporary academy’s drive to cater to the younger generation’s relatively nonintellectual interests, but it is in fact hoped that patrons who use the library in such a fashion would not only be more likely to use it in traditional ways — more likely, for instance, to feel comfortable approaching a research librarian for help with a project — but also more empowered to collaborate with one another, breaking the library’s stereotypical hush.

Given that libraries are already interested in establishing themselves as part of a scholarly discursive network, putting the emphasis in the development of electronic publishing technologies on an individualist sense of the book’s circulation — on the retreat into isolation that accompanies our stereotypical imaginings of the library — threatens to miss the point entirely, ignoring the ways that the book itself has always served as an object of discussion, and thus overlooking the real benefit to be derived from liberating the book’s content from the form of the codex. Network interactions and connections of the types provided by blog engines can, I’d argue, revitalize academic discourse not just in its pamphlet/coffee-house mode, but also in its book/library mode, by facilitating discussion of a text, by promoting that discussion within the text’s own frame, and by manifesting the ways that each individual text is, and has always been, in dialogue with numerous texts that have preceded it, and that are yet to come.

If you’d like to respond to her thoughts on the future of the book, you can do so at the CommentPress version of her article.

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.

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