Saturday, July 10, 2010

Permanence, Impermanence, and Libraries

black-eyed susans (rudbeckia) amongst boxwood

Things are changing in academic libraries. Everyone knows this. Librarians discuss it ad nauseum. The end results are not yet entirely clear, but the way librarians manage collections, the way we all find things, the ways scholarship is performed -- all this and more is adapting to the times.

In more pessimistic moments it reminds me of the very short story by Arthur C. Clarke, "The Nine Billion Names of God." At other times it seems natural and orderly and something like progress.

This week I've been thinking about the sometimes contradictory desires to both have everything accessible at your fingertips, and also to be able to hold something Real that is not just a piece of technology connecting you to a virtual version. In the past I haven't quite understood the appeal of espresso book machines for printing on demand, but maybe that type of thing is important in the way that it supports the urge to possess while complementing electronic content. One of the things I learned when studying the history of the book is that when printing was new, the quality of printed materials was often very poor -- smudged ink, pages missing or bound incorrectly, type letters worn out. Maybe printing technology is heading back in that direction. Maybe binding books by hand will come into fashion again.

While cloud computing almost guarantees that we will never be able to completely 'lose' something on the web, anyone who takes advantage of the convenience of modern technology is also aware of the potentially catastrophic effects when it fails. This is partly why a tangible object still has value when it comes to durability. No matter how much you love your iPhone today, it will be dead and gone in a few years, replaced with a newer and shinier one.

I found the recent news about Stanford's Engineering Library's books unsurprising; what is perhaps more interesting is that an engineering library would continue to find 10,000 books worth holding onto. That's still a lot of books, and if book production in the U.S. and elsewhere has finally peaked after centuries of growth, those 10,000 are now imbued with particular importance. The other 75,000+ can languish in the cloud, but those 10,000 are the select, to be honored with shelf space and a groomed physical form.

I don't think people who appreciate printed books are just being nostalgic; I think the design (the technology) of a book really is still very useful. (I'm probably too far down the rabbit hole for this to be relevant, but personally when I want to read a particular book, I never choose the e-book version when I have the option of the printed.) Technology can be fussy and unreliable, and there is a learning curve to it. It makes its presence felt as an intermediary in a way that a printed book rarely does.

What I'm leading to is that from a usability standpoint there is still room for both printed materials as well as collections that only exist online. The question is whether economics will ultimately support both.

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