Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The pbook

I was privileged to spend time yesterday with Gary Frost, the University of Iowa's book conservation specialist, and a quite exceptional thinker. We discussed the future of the print book ahead of this afternoon's roundtable on that subject, at which we are both participants. Gary talked about the need to maintain an 'authentic witness' to the book even as we busily digitise and remove books from the shelves of the libraries at our institutions. He suggested that as we whittle down physical collections on our campuses, all the remainders will, effectively, become 'Special Collections'. The pbook (the 'physical book' as opposed to the ebook: see http://frontofstore.org/) will eventually become an object of curiosity to be looked at in a glass case. I can barely bring myself to believe this could be true, but the time for considering what we are doing as a world of readers and users of books is now. Technological inevitablism--a passivity in the face of the dramatic changes to the way we do our intellectual business--is simply not an option. Who controls what happens? Who can say 'Stop! Let's think about what we're doing?' I have no idea, but this is a start. So, to the 'think tanks' and the Digital obsessors and space savers, I would insist we hang on just a sec while we work out what it is that we think we're doing, and more to the point, why? The decisions that are made now are significant: whether or not to move the book from the shelf to storage; whether or not to join the Big 12 Universities and agree to share one copy of the real book retained and stored in Indiana, and digitise the rest. Libraries then reinvent themselves as 'Learning Commons', or, as at FSU, 'Scholars Commons' (an ironic vacuous space filled with nothing at all to aid the scholar, and where even the name with its absent apostrophe suggests the demise of traditional intellectualism). At this point, two thousand years of learning through libraries becomes something different, and while different doesn't always mean 'worse', what will the end result be? I'm not a prophet, so I don't know. But I do know that moving books to remote storage and replacing them with space-saving ebooks (force-feeding students by loaning ebook-readers) is not the answer to the current demands of technology and financial constraints. Why not? Simple, really. An ebook is NOT a book; it is something different--a simulacrum at best, a contextless mimic at worst--and it is thus not a case of replacing like-with-like. As Gary commented to me, the University Libraries are the gatekeepers of knowledge, and the guardians of traditional scholarship. Are any of them really thinking about the consequences of their knee-jerk strategies? What they choose to do now matters more than most of them realise, I suspect.

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