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.


Hearts, Minds, and Truths for the Future

During this thoroughly depressing season of American life, I have been re-reading two books by Howard Gardner, the professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. I was privileged to spend a morning with him this past March at the School’s Library Leadership for a Digital Age professional education forum. I was impressed again by his humanity, long-range vision, and insight that people are rarely either at their best or at their worst.

FiveMindsForTheFutureThe two books are Five Minds for the Future and Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed. Five Minds was originally published ten years ago, and Gardner added a substantial new introduction to the paperback edition of 2008. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed was published five years ago, and he added a new introduction to the paperback edition of a year later. Rather than simply becoming out of date, if anything these books are more urgent than ever.  Disciplined, respectful, creative reflection: what could be more foreign to the spirit of 2016?

Five Minds alludes to Gardner’s famous work on multiple intelligences, but takes a different approach to minds which are made up of varying mixtures of intelligences and connections. The disciplined, synthesizing, and creative minds figure most prominently in education, whether formal or informal, and form the great content of many people’s work, whether mental or physical. The respectful and ethical minds, by contrast, figure the “how” of life, both to members of a group, and to other human beings in relationship (the respectful), and in relation to the wider impact of behavior and work on society (the ethical). What makes work “good,” both in a technical sense and a moral sense? The respectful mind elucidates personal morality and reciprocity; ethical work elucidates citizenship and the “common- wealth” in an eighteenth century term. Of course this brief summary elides a great deal of content, context, and subtlety.

TruthBeautyAndGoodnessCoverTruth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed extends this work: the five minds addressing the classical virtues and their uneasy transition into a digital world.   Gardner defends these classical questions against the determinism of free market theory (in which value tends to equal price), neurobiological determinism (in which truth is a result of genetic controls), and “hard” post-modern relativism, according to which truth, beauty, and goodness are inherently unattainable, and merely cloak the acquisition and exercise of power. Gardner’s extended defence and arguments are not easy to summarize. Suffice that these are fundamental to a respectful, ethical human society and in a hyper-connected, fleeting, digital world become more important than ever as anchors for human flourishing.

In a broad sense Gardner pushes back against radically reductive economic, neuro-psychological, or radically skeptical currents that would dislodge the major claims of liberal arts education. “Liberal arts” as a term never appears in these books, and yet implicit in his convictions lies a strong claim that in fact the unexamined life is not worth living (Socrates’ foundational claim). The great peril of unreflective, technological, market-driven capitalist society is not that it does not know enough to function, but that it cannot reckon what it does not know –greatly to its undoubted, eventual undoing. A reflective mind is a necessarily modest mind.

What does this have to do with an academic library? Everything. If a neo-liberal university is exclusively driven by utility –what sells? –what do users already know they want to use? –what is the return of utilization for price? –what keeps them paying tuition so they don’t move to a cheaper competitor, or away entirely? Then the question of minds simply goes out the window. In that view, a disciplined, synthesizing, and creative mind only matters if it can make money and further the aims of the organization’s management. Respect and ethics means only doing work that is good enough, behaving in the right way, and not being too nakedly self-centered or opportunistic. In that case, the library becomes simply a managed environment for stenographic repetition of known thoughts.   Concepts of truth, beauty, goodness –however tenuously re-worked—are simply beside the point, lovely luxuries for those who can flaunt high-end educational branding.

If on the other hand a university can find a way to articulate the fundamental values of reflective thinking in an unthinkingly reactive, pompous, and dis-respectful era, then the library has a place as a center for self-directed engagement with potentially transformative truths. In such a context the library enacts the university’s mission of nurturing sound learning,  new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom by creating the physical and intellectual space where a biology student can become a biologist (just one example).  Gardner’s books have everything to do with the why of librarianship. David Lankes has been quoted that a room full of books without a librarian is just a room full of books, but an empty room with a librarian is a library. (Of course the latter case is really easier to do with at least a few books.) That focuses on the why of librarianship: it is what librarians do; the library is all the people (librarians and readers) and their thinking, not just their stuff. The librarian’s and the user’s actions can transcend their self-interests. They can create and re-create their minds for a respectful and creative future.

Deep Work in an Academic Library

I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Work (Grand Central/Hachette, 2016), and it is challenging and invigorating.  As a historian of Christianity, much of what he says resonates strongly with the writings from religious communities of varying types: those Benedictines who work outside the cloister, Dominicans, Jesuits, and Society of St. John the Evangelist, for example.

I realize those are all very different emphases of Christian spirituality.  In common, however, is a desire to find balance between the active and contemplative life —neither simply to leave the “shallow” world absolutely (in contrast with, for example, Carthusians), nor simply to surrender any meaningful deep work and wonder.  Newport writes (briefly) about honing a skill with craft (for example, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, coders, or teachers) and the connection of meaningful, skilled work with the sacred —the world of luminous, shining, wonderful things.  He speaks from an intellectual background formed by Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class As Soulcraft, Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, and Herbert Dreyfuss' and Sean Kelly’s All Things Shining.

I’m not yet finished with Newport’s book, but I’m an engaged reader, and with such books I take my time.  Newport has reminded me vividly of the first professional library job I had (at Drew University, 1986-1992), when computers were coming into academic libraries, but e-mail, the Internet (not yet graphical), and the culture of distracted busyness were in an early stage, compared to the present.  Working with less distraction, I did in fact get more done, and more happily —one reason that I remember that job as perhaps the most satisfactory job I have had as a librarian.

I have heard it said that as academic librarians, “our interruptions are our business,” and that may be true when fielding requests for help from our students and faculty.  But they’re asking for help less than they used to, and the days of the reference question that ends with a verification of fact are long past.  Now questions have much more to do with process: how do I use this database?  How do I cite this in APA? How can I tell if an article is really peer-reviewed? —just to cite facile examples.  Academic librarians must admit, I believe, that the principle interruptions we endure most days do in fact come from each other: the relentless stream of e-mail, and the distractions of social and news media.

In January I heard Jim Honan of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education reflect on a phrase he took from a librarian in New York State, “Our data does not do justice to our story.”  What is our story as a library, what is our value proposition: how does what we do matter, to whom, and how do we do it?  Responsible and apt answers to those questions have to go beyond the shallow work of day-to-day institutional librarianship to the deep work of the field.

Do academic librarians have “deep work” to do, or is it all in the shallows?  Newport defines deep work (page 3):

Deep work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.  These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Do academic librarians do any of that?  I must answer yes —but in metaphors or images that differ from the kinds of deep work that Newport seems to presuppose as a computer scientist and mathematician (his work concentrates on distributed algorithms, designed to work through and among interconnected processors).

Librarians fundamentally connect learners (inquirers) to sources of information and knowledge —learners who are taking responsibility for their own learning.  As such a learning-centered library is necessarily a polymorphous, polyglot, multifocal place (physical or digital place, or both at once).  The new value that librarians create (to use Newport’s words) will reside in the minds of those inquirers with whom the librarians interact.

The value proposition of libraries ultimately lies in improving the skill of independent learners to set their own terms and extent for learning, to take responsibility for what they know, and want to know —both know cognitively, and know how to do.

The strategies librarians employ —how are they going to do this— involve both interactions with learners and intellectual resources and tools.  This is the truth behind David Lankes’ contention that “a room full of books is simply a closet, but that an empty room with a librarian in it is a library.”  A library is fundamentally what librarians do more than what they have.  The academic public, of course, usually sees it the other way around.

Academic librarianship suffers in spades from the major distractions that impede deep work(pages 53 et seq.).  Newport’s “metric black hole” afflicts most of the field: not only is it nearly impossible to measure what makes an academic librarian effective or distracted, it is hard to measure the impact of this professional work in the first place.  The ACRL has undertaken significant initiatives to show the value of academic libraries, but none of the strategies or paths so far are completely persuasive.  

This difficulty with metrics leads to following the paths of least resistance: absent the clear and compelling evaluative mechanism of a bottom line (or other metric), librarians (among other workers) tend to choose the behavior that is easiest and easiest to rationalize at the time.  Being a librarian means doing what other librarians do, even if that’s not very deep, and how would you know that, anyway?

Hence, in the absence of clear indicators of what is really means to be valuable and productive, like other workers librarians can make busyness a proxy for productivity: do lots of stuff in a visible manner (hey! look at us over here in the library!).  So it has to be valuable and productive, right?

I haven’t yet finished the book, so I don’t want to give the appearance of reviewing it.  I have a question for Newport, however.  Is his operational concept of deep work in the book in fact overly determined by the kind of deep work he does as a computer scientist?  If he were a linguist, a psychologist, or a  performing artist, would he have written the book differently?

By no means to I wish to trivialize his work (either computer science, or this book).  Newport’s leading example of deep work is Carl Jung and
the tower he built near his rural house in Bollingen Tower a two-story stone house with a private study (not very far from Zurich).  Jung would go there to write undistracted, unlike his busy practice, family, and cafe life in Zurich.  Without question “the Tower” was crucial for Jung’s thinking and writing, producing the remarkable insights and books that not only took on Sigmund Freud, but changed depth psychology and real people’s lives.  His work was “deep” in every sense.

Newport tends by implication to characterize Jung’s work in Zurich, by contrast, as shallow.  Newport sympathetically  and consistently characterizes shallow work as significant and unavoidable —the everyday work of professional duties and communications that require attention, but not deep engagement.  In his several examples of Richard Feynman (physics), Adam Grant (business and work behaviors), or Rick Furrer (blacksmith), Newport associatesdeep work  strongly with isolation and often solitary craft —whether craft of steel, wood, or words (writing), and shallow work with all the other stuff.

Yet much of Jung’s work in Zurich was anything but shallow.  His numerous cases show up all over his writings, and his deep analyst-analysand encounters inform every page of his writings.  His challenge to Freud and Freudians required not only courage and persistence, but skill —a skill that cannot be characterized as “shallow” in any sense.  Newport never characterizes it as shallow explicitly, but the implication remains strong; while he writes explicitly, “don’t work alone,” he encounters conceptual and definitional difficulties when associating deep work with collaboration.  Although Newport describes Jung's pattern as "bimodal," his description cannot help but privilege the deep over the "shallow," even though without Zurich there would have been no Bollingen (and vice versa).  Is it not possible in each place Jung was engaging differing and distinct Gestalten or formulations of deep work?

How does this pertain to librarians? Library work is inherently collaborative: even solo librarians aren’t really solo, but depend on the work of librarians elsewhere.  The collaboration of learner and teacher can be deep work, even when that teacher is not formally a classroom instructor.

Newport’s concept of deep work is not flawed, but it needs to be broadened and adjusted for several lines or other metaphors of work —I’m thinking about librarians and parish clergy, lines of work that I know personally and best (there are many others, of course).  Such adjustments cannot –must not–detract from clarity or pertinence.  Librarians almost certainly do spend too much time on e-mail and connectivity of fairly trivial sorts —for example, the rush in the recent past for librarians to tweet their work even though the very medium of Twitter tends to trivialize it.  It is very easy for librarians to mistake busyness for productivity.

Telling the library’s story, showing its value proposition and strategy can be deep work.  Deep work requires librarians not to confuse busyness with productivity, and not to follow the safe paths of least resistance and sheer habit.  Librarianship is a craft, service both to the living and the dead, collaborating with both learners and resources.  It can be a variety of soulcraft.  (I never forget that I hold a degree from Columbia University’s School of Library Service.)  Clearing the mind for this deep work does in fact afford a glimpse of the sacred trust of learners, traditions, and change.  Newport’s book gives librarians' deep work a robust boost, a clarion recall to mental clarity.  I'm privileged and happy to be able to continue reading it.

Why Does Library Privacy Matter?

In 2009 Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, was asked whether users should be willing to share information with Google as if it were a trusted friend –and Schmidt famously replied, "If you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."  The Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that this is very close to the famous phrase, "if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about" –beloved of those who are seeking greater law-enforcement powers or processes.  It implies that people who seek to preserve privacy are doing something to worry about, not those who place them under surveillance.

That was then.  In the aftermath of Edward Snowdon's revelations –in particular those that detail the very cozy relationships between the NSA, major firms such as Google, and telecommunications giants such as Verizon– privacy has returned as a positive right, not merely a historical left-over.

A library is probably one of the last places where one can pursue interests and information unobserved.  A mere few years ago this was a sign of obsolescence rather than currency.  Libraries made data surveillance difficult because they weren't high-tech enough.  That has changed too.  Suddenly that obsolescence has become a feature (as in, "that's not a bug, it's a feature!").

Why does it matter?  If there is one thing that Pew survey after Pew survey has found –as well as OCLC and other survey producers– that thing surely has to be: people feel positive about the library "brand."  They want a vibrant, useful library in their academic, residential, or business community whether or not they intend to use it (or have used it).  A library is a "good thing."  People trust libraries, and trust librarians.

Trust is a huge asset, not to be thrown away or discounted casually.  Just ask General Motors, or for that matter, the NSA itself.

In general, libraries do a fairly accurate job of maintaining trust, but could do a lot better.  Circulation records of tangible items are not easily available for public discovery, depending on the laws of state and local jurisdictions.  (Connecticut has alarming little provision of the privacy of library records, for example.)  In any case, circulation records are hard to locate digitally because they are held in highly particular formats in integrated library systems, formats that don't translate readily to standards and common practices outside.  That's wasn't a bug, and now it's a feature.

Library use of external databases is a different matter.  In many systems, all traffic routed through a library proxy will be seen by parties outside the proxy as coming from one machine, one Internet Protocol address.  Separating the sessions would be far harder.  That doesn't cover all library database transactions, however, or even a large portion of them.  Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon —in French, GAFA— can monitor a great deal of transactions on library workstations unless those are properly protected.

Eric Hellman has written persuasively (to my mind, at least) about the Library Digital Privacy Pledge here and here.  It's an interesting concept, whether or not the pledge ever receives wide adoption.  Eric's primary focus at this point is to get libraries to use the secure HTTP protocol –HTTPS– as much as possible.  Library digital privacy has, of course, many other aspects that will need to be addressed.

Recently the small New Hampshire public library in West Lebanon (near Dartmouth College) was for the most part bullied away from using the secure browser system TOR by the NSA –although now they have recovered their courage.  TOR has been targeted in the past as the province of drug-dealers, pedophiles, and terrorists –what lovely company– and who would want to be associated with them?  The topic invariably circles back to law enforcement: if you haven't done anything wrong, you've got nothing to hide (even when grammatically challenged!).

In the library no one ever used to track your reading, and no one should now: 3rd article of the American Library Association's Code of Ethics.  Trust is easily lost.  Privacy is easily lost.  A library is a great place to think, write, and read privately.  It's not a bug, it's a feature.


Why Do Books Matter?

. . . Many people have concluded already that they don't. If you have concluded that they are irrelevant and old-fashioned, you probably will not be open to this discussion.  I encourage you, nevertheless, to have an open mind.

I’m a librarian and a book person (who’d have thought?) and therefore probably against the grain of American culture right now.  Books have been enormously influential in my life; they gave me an outlet, vision, and ambition when I was very young, and (some of them) have continued to challenge, delight, and astound me ever since.  Some books I count as old friends, and its a diverse lot: Lucretius, Søren Kierkegaard, Frederick Buechner, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor, Robertson Davies, Nora Ephron, Peter Brown, P.D. James — probably my educational and professional background shows there,  and some (like Brian Greene) I don’t understand very well.  I continue to read both printed books and digital texts; my current project is John Eliot Norton’s Bach: Music In The Castle Of Heaven.

To sum up a counter position: A “book person” is an anachronism: the world is digital, information moves at blazing speed, and care, nuance, and precision are luxuries of the past.  Readers have become users; teachers have become suppliers, and students have become customers.  The competition for attention drowns out the sustained attention any book requires, and the mark of the contemporary is multi-tasking, even though humans have been shown to do that very badly.  Instead of nuance, we have media scolds and bludgeons; instead of discussion we have talking points and position papers; instead of reading we have scanning or surfing.  Is it any wonder that we wind up with in a bitterly contentious, polarized society marked by increasing, sharp differences between the very rich, the poor, those caught in the diminishing middle, —where everything is on the market, and humans are either the customers or the product?  Disruption is the word of the moment, nevermind whether it is a well-establish and solidly argued social good or simple mediocrity —that it’s disrupted is enough to draw the line between the tired old and the shiny new.  Aaron Bady’s sharp questioning of Clay Shirky reveal how possible futures become taken for inevitable outcomes, and the slippery proposition that those outside any institution, profession, or work are bound to understand it better than its practitioners.  “Open is open” seems to end all discussion, period.  It is alleged, if you are part of “closed” (read “old) system, you couldn’t possibly understand.

Printed books are an “old” format bound for disruption, right?  Turns out: not so fast.  People continue to want them, and sales remain strong, despite Amazon’s assault on bookstores.  (And I do mean assault.)  The “friction” (or difficulty) of obtaining a print book —you have to go somewhere to get one: library, bookstore, or online— is also a friction for the publisher (lately restyled as the “intellectual property owner” —but that’s another blog entry).  Once published and sold, a print book can’t be disappeared in an Orwellian or Statist (Fascist) manner.  Case in point: last summer the merger of Penguin and Random House led to the disappearing of 1,400 Random House digital books from the SHU library catalog —the terms of the deal seems to have indicated that the new management (mostly from Penguin) would not continue the contracts with digital book aggregators (in our case, eBrary Academic Complete).  Suddenly links didn’t work, and a few weeks later records displaying them were deleted from our library system.  Had we purchase those 1,400 books as printed, the library would still have them available.  At least a few of them are bound to have been of enduring value and related to SHU’s curriculum (it was Random House, an “old” and “quality” publisher).  Now we have to pay more —either acquire print copies, or find where they are available digitally.

This doesn’t get at why books really matter, of course.  I’m thinking of academic books: scholarly books, and high-quality books for the wider market (such as Robert Caro’s everlasting biography of Lyndon B. Johnson).  What matters is not their format, but their content, their intellectual, nuanced exploration and exposition of a subject.  Format is not incidental, but neither is it crucial.

Books are critical to education and the life of a culture because of the sustained attention required to write and to read them.  Books are critical because they encode or contain thinking that can become part of a public discourse —can be challenged, confirmed, critiqued, welcomed, despised, all the possible outcomes of seriously considering a proposition or an argument.  A book sticks around in a stable form so that the author cannot suddenly alter  its contents to suit latter convenience, prove herself or himself right, or respond to critics.

Books are destructible, and tyrants have long sought to destroy them.  Book burnings became a badge of totalitarianism in the 20th century.  But otherwise all the copies of a book are hard to destroy.  A widely distributed supply and market system made it highly likely that somewhere, somehow, a copy might survive.  This has mattered in the face of tyrant, and it matter most during the period when so many texts went underground during the great disruptions of the early Middle Ages.  This list of ancient authors who survived to be read later on the basis of a single copy is a long list, and includes works by Aristotle, Lucretius, and Tacitus.

The idea that books as a technology of learning are obsolete takes a very short view.  To be sure: some books are obsolete: who bothers to look up past market prices for securities in a printed volume?  A much longer view sees the value in the conversations among and between generations.  Partisans of the “originalist” view of the U.S. Constitution need to know what those original views are; partisans or a more evolutionist view need a sense of difference over time, of intervening realities and developments.  At the far end of this this longer horizon is the Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand’s striking question: what are we doing that could make any difference 10,000 years from now?  (See The Long Now Foundation)

A neo-liberal university in which the customer (students + parents) is king may be able to “satisfice” their information needs by simply pulling random hits from a casual Google search.  That sells students and learning short, perhaps disastrously short.  Learning is more than simply a private good to be parceled out to those who can pay.  I believe in books, because books give witness to thinking that might propell such a university away from a view which spells long term disaster for learning, for universities, and for free society.



Who Owns The Future Of Books?

My prevous post took a brief look at the religious ideas that permeate not only Jaron Lanier's Who Owns The Future? (whether he explicitly acknowledges those ideas or not). This post considers what he contributes about books, and the future of books.

(Lanier, author of Who Owns The Future? appears on the SHU campus on Wednesday, October 9, 7:00 p.m. Schine Auditorium)

Books have become a cultural flash point that inspire "maniacal scheming" (see pages 352-360) –an unwitting testament to books' enduring iconic, cultural power.  What bothers Lanier is that current development of networks –the Siren Servers that seek total computational awareness and control–might lead to losing "the pattern of what a book is in the stream of human life and thought." (353)  After sketching some possible future scenarios about the fate of books, authors, and readers, Lanier offers a definition (one of the very best I have ever read):

A book isn't an artifact, but a synthesis of fully realized individual personhood with human continuity. The economic model of our networks has to be optimized to preserve that synthesis, or it will not serve [hu]mankind.(358)

Lanier here touches upon the emotional salience and cultural power that books evoke.  The uneasiness Lanier shares with many is not just about texts (tomes, bindings), but about human lives.  "Human life is its own purpose," he continues.  "Thinking about people in terms of the components on a network is–in intellectual and spiritual terms–a slow suicide for the researchers and a slow homicide against everyone else."(360)  The ingestion of millions of e-texts into Artificial Intelligence divorces what humans write about from who they are, and what makes their lives meaningful to them.  "Whether we will destroy culture in order to save/digitize it is still unknown."(353) (Lanier references that metaphor to the Vietnam war.)

What makes a liberal education liberal–freeing–is the strong association (synthesis) of particular texts with particular people, moments, events, movements, points of view.  The real intellectual problem with Wikipedia isn't its alleged accuracy or inaccuracy. Rather, it "proposes that knowledge can be divorced from point of view." Note that Lanier writes knowledge –not data, not information, not the "flashes of thought" that might be "inserted meaningfully into a shared semantic structure" (ibid.)  Knowledge is what humans make for other humans.  Strictly speaking, computers can store, locate, index, and transform data, but can't know in the same sense.

These are my own thoughts, sourced in Lanier's text, which I found to enormously helpful in articulating the fundamentally different business model of a library from a database, even a sort of meta-database (a database of databases –a discovery service, in other words).  What libraries are about is the discovery of knowledge in human communities and continuities, in a symmetrical transaction that celebrates unanswered questions (intellectual risk) and acknowledges the presence of other sources of knowledge –whether living persons, libraries, databases, search engines, or other human syntheses of any and every kind.  

This transaction (process, pedagogy) thrusts libraries into an educational process squarely at odds with Siren Servers that are naracisstic (as though they alone collect data), risk-externalizing (questions and uncertainties never belong to the Server, always to the user), and depend upon extreme information assymetry –users can't know what the Server already knows about them, and how it seeks to modify their behavior.

Understanding the cultural term "book" a "a synthesis of fully realized individual personhood with human continuity" respects authors, readers, and the economic and intellectual chain of power and responsibility that connects them.  This also illuminates why some (many?) people care so passionately about books –what they care about is human continuity, personhood, what makes a human life worth living.  What better question could a liberal arts education pursue?  What could be more "relevant" to the challenges of living in a "flat," networked world?