The Strange and Unexpected Re-emergence of Printed Books


Printed book imageTypewriters, mechanical watches, vinyl recordings, newspapers, printed books –obsolete technologies, right? Get with the program: countless incumbent industries and professions have been rendered pointless: disrupt or be disrupted –right? This has been the dominant cultural narrative –right?

I first heard about the obsolescence of librarians 35 years ago at the start of my career. Columbia University soon after accepted dominant cultural narratives and closed their graduate library school, college of pharmacy, and departments of geography and linguistics. Pharmaceuticals? Digital and print librarians? Linguistics and languages? Geographic information systems? –all obsolete (Whoops!). Since those who proclaim their demise have usually been selling some replacement, cynicism follows fast. Another prediction of demise, another day.

Entirely outside of libraries, a counter-narrative has grown. David Sax popularized one in Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why Real Things Matter (PublicAffairs, 2016): we interface with the world in a tactile, communal world.   At Harvard Business School, Prof. Ryan Raffaeli studies organizational behavior, using field research.  He contributes much more sophisticated thinking about re-emergent technologies. He has found that "incumbent" technologies and industries can make a comeback. This story has important implications for libraries.

Some technologies re-emerge from disruption and destruction, especially those that had a long history. Count out VHS tapes and punch cards: those were transitional. Typewriters have had a long enough history, as do fountain or nib pens (extending the dip, quill-type pens since 1827) .

Printed books, like other technologies, brought whole occupations and kinds of work with them: not just printers, but also binders, sellers, retailers, and of course librarians. As a candidate for "innovative disruption" by digital books, the demise of the printed book, so loudly proclaimed ten years ago, mandated the demise of book stores, libraries, librarians, publishers, editors.  Now anyone can write a book (see Amazon); who needs editors? Who needs libraries or bookstores?

Some disruptions are truly innovative –others just disruptions, and others just hype, but shouting as real (see previous post). The disruption narrative is not sufficiently incorrect (although it can be applied poorly), but the consequence corollary of the incumbent industries' necessary inability to adapt –and certainty of their demise– is less well-founded.  Raffaelli's research shows that technologies can re-emerge, a cognitive process in two phases: first largely cultural, temporal, and narrative process; second a competitive process in a re-defined market with distinctive values not strictly established by price. His leading example is the Swiss mechanical watch-making industries; his second is the return and rise of independent book sellers in the USA.

Both the watch-makers and the book sellers lost substantial market shares when disruptive, good-enough technologies moved upmarket and claimed their most profitable customers: watchmakers with the rise of cheaper, more accurate quartz watches in the 1970s; book sellers with the rise of major chain bookstores in the 1990s, followed by Amazon. They keenly felt their losses: numerous Swiss firms closed or discontinued manufacturing; from 1995 to 2009 around 1,400 bookstores closed. Enough hung on, however, to rebound: how did they do it?

Raffaelli identifies the terms of competition: old terms such as price, availability, and quality change with the entry of disruptive technologies to market. The survivors have re-defined the competition: how they want to compete, and what value proposition they offer to their customers. He traces a complex process of de-coupling product and organizational identity and renegotiation of foundational concepts and business roles. The process is both bottom-up (from the "factory floor" or fundamental, front-line production or service) and top-down: from industry alliances, design thinking, and organizational management.

In the Swiss mechanical watch industry, he has identified entrepreneurs and guardians. Entrepreneurs are alert to market signals, cultural currents, and emerging narratives that suggest that new communities are forming new values. Guardians by contrast preserve older technologies and enduring values and counterbalance the entrepreneurs; both are necessary for the process of cognitive re-emergence. When the industry drew near to complete collapse, collectors began to purchase mechanical watches at high prices at auctions, signaling that their small community found genuine value expressed momentarily in price. Entrepreneurs realized that the market for mechanical watches had not completely disappeared, but changed: the value lay not in keeping time for a price, but in expressing a cultural signal. Guardians, meanwhile, had preserved enough of the technology that recovery was possible; veteran employees preserved crucial tools and skills that enabled a recovery. Each needed the other; the leadership necessary for re-emergence arose not just from the top level of the organization and industry, but from the commitment and wisdom of key skilled workers. Mechanical watches were then marketed as high-end, luxury items that "said something" about their owners. As new customers entered or moved up-market, they adopted such watches as a sign of cultural status and belonging.

Independent booksellers successfully re-framed their market as primarily community, secondarily as inventory. First the chain stores (Borders, Barnes & Noble) out-competed them on price, then Amazon on price and inventory availability. Independent booksellers have focused instead on 3 Cs: Community and local connections, Curation of inventory that enhanced a personal relationship with customers, and Convening events for those with similar interests: readings, lectures, author signings, and other group events. The booksellers' trade association (American Booksellers Association or ABA) facilitates booksellers' connections with local communities with skills, best practices, effective use of media, and outreach to other local business and organizations (–even libraries, once considered the booksellers' competitors). The re-emergent market was defined both by entrepreneurial booksellers, front-line service guardians, a growing social movement committed to localism, and industry-scale cooperation. Between 2009 and 2017 the ABA reported +35% more independent booksellers: from 1,651 to 2,321 nation-wide. A sign of the integration of booksellers with community spaces: for 2017 sales up 2.6% over 2016.

Like independent bookstores, the "library brand" remains strongly bound to printed books –after all, the name derives from "liber" (Latin), confirmed with "biblos" (Greek). The printed book, once thought to be a obsolete technology, shows strong signs of re-emergence as a stable cultural experience not apt to be interrupted by digital distractions or the dopamine kicks of addictive social media.  This brand identity will persist even though libraries offer many kinds of resources in many formats –including millions of digital books.

What does such technology and market re-emergence have to do with libraries? These cases suggest the emerging re-definition of libraries (as both old and new) is analogous to much of Raffaelli's work, and that the narrative frame of "disruptive innovation in higher education" can be –should be– challenged by a this more useful counter-narrative, "new and re-emergent technologies in higher education."

While libraries' role as mere "book providers" has been challenged by disruptive technological service entrants such as the Internet, Amazon, and social media, libraries' role as a channel for trusted, stable information is stronger than ever. The Pew Research Center survey data from Fall 2016 found that 53% of Millennials (those 18 to 35 at that time) say they used a library –a generational cohort (not just college students–the study focused on public libraries). This compared with 45% of Gen Xers, 43% of Baby Boomers, and 36% of Silent Generation. In 2016 Pew also reported that libraries help "a lot" in deciding what information they can trust, from 24% in 2015 to 37% in 2016. Women held that opinion more strongly, 41%. Recent anecdotes suggest that such opinions have not changed direction.


Boston-public-library-free-to-allLibraries are regarded as very strong assets to a community: the high values placed on pleasant space, safety, and community events also emerged in the Pew studies. Coupled with bottom-up initiatives from front-line librarians and individual organizations, the American Library Association has devoted substantial attention and resources to initiatives such as the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, and the Libraries Transform campaign.  Libraries' free-to-all traditions (supported by tuition, tax dollars, and other sources) do not track community impact as easily as do independent bookstore sales figures. Their value proposition for their communities becomes clear in usage figures (at SHU growth in usage has outpaced growth in enrollment) and the faculties' documented turn towards librarians in helping undergraduate students develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills.

As a re-emergent technology, printed books sustain a host of skills, occupations, organizations, and cultural signals that do not boil down to a single, simplistic, marketable narrative. Conceived in the late 20th century as "information resources," books gave way to digital representation; conceived as "documented knowledge," the act of reading books in a library context provides a tangible experience of informed learning, cultural absorption, and community participation. Libraries provide many services. Without the "brand" of reading books, and the sustaining services of librarians, the library would turn into derelict, zombie storage spaces. Knowledge is a communal good as well as a private act; it is never simply an individual achievement: free to all. We are all culturally embedded in the minds of our predecessors and communities for weal and woe –and without libraries, bookstores, timekeepers, and printed books, we will not be able to progress from woe to weal.

 

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