Book of the week: The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

Electronification won't kill off books entirely, discovers Andreas Hess

December 10, 2009

While we are still reading books and articles, we are for ever tempted by the computer screen. Rarely do we openly reflect on the dilemma that our common reading habits seem to feed; namely that the more time we stare into the screen and the more others do the same, the harder it will be to write, produce and enjoy books the traditional way.

Resignation to what seems technologically unavoidable has become widespread; while we appear to be somewhat unhappy about the development, we are not outraged. As Philip Roth has noted in a blue moment, despite all the scaremongering, books will not die out - yet only a dedicated few will continue to read them.

Such brave-new-world scenarios also worry Robert Darnton, prominent historian of both the Enlightenment and the history of the book. As current director of the Harvard University Library, which comprises not only the famous Widener Library but also more than two dozen specialised libraries and collections, he is ideally placed to comment. He has to make informed decisions that directly relate to the challenges and blue moments referred to previously.

The radically changed information landscape forces institutions of higher learning and public and private libraries to select and order more carefully. The highly differentiated nature of modern knowledge, particularly noticeable in, but not necessarily limited to, the sciences, has led to a situation where libraries must pay thousands of pounds annually for a single science journal subscription. With tight budgets and approximately 1 million titles being published each year, librarians find themselves in a constant triage situation: what to drop, what to keep and what to purchase. The selection is further complicated by knowing that money spent on journals is no longer available for the purchase of traditional monographs.

The crisis is by no means limited to libraries. Publishers who do not have journals in their catalogue or do not serve the textbook market are in deep trouble. Academics have been forced to give up the idea of writing monographs and have turned to focus instead on producing specialised articles or textbooks. For the writer, this decision constitutes a narcissistic injury. No longer are they able to hold the physical end product of what may be years of work in their hand. Instead, the result of an academic's labour has to be sliced sushi-fine into articles for ever-more-specialised journals. One is often reminded of novelist and satirist Flann O'Brien's hilarious comments in his famous "Myles na gCopaleen" columns for The Irish Times, where he mischievously referred more than once to imaginary footnotes in the (equally imaginary) Zeitschrift fur Wasserwissenschaften: "Vol. 36, year ... Winter/Sommer, Sommer/Winter ... pp ..., see especially footnote ... where the author notes that ... ".

Enter the great "selfless" benefactor Google, a company that seems not only to offer a way out of the availability dilemma but also may make the Enlightenment-age dream of free and accessible knowledge for all come true. Yet, as Darnton warns us, we should not celebrate the democratic realisation of the republic of letters too prematurely. After all, haven't we been promised similar achievements before? It was only three decades ago that microfiche became the hype of the day, only for professional archivists to wake up from the pipe dream to realise that some original paper documents lasted longer than microfiche film. By then it was too late; thousands of newspaper archives had been destroyed in what Herman Melville, in Bartleby the Scrivener, called the "Dead Letter Office".

Now, we are told, it's different. The electronic format allows for the greatest library on earth, greater than the Library of Congress, the British Library, the Bibliotheque nationale de France or the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek. The only problem is that we are handing everything to a private company that has a monopoly. How democratic is that?

Google's SWAT team is already happily scanning away at Harvard's collection, the research facility that, together with the collections of four other major American research libraries, will form the base of the new electronic library. In the US, all books and articles published before 1923, the year copyright laws were introduced, are now subject to the great Google scanner. Additionally, after the filing of a modified agreement with a US federal court that introduced some restrictions relating to titles published in France and Germany, Google will have the right to scan all copyright titles and make them available to the public.

Darnton realises that the future is digital, and he has, it seems, done his best to pursue the dream of free access for all, while also making the case for books and libraries. He has not given in to Roth-like resignation, nor does he particularly love Google's monopoly. In a number of essays, which now form the book under review, he gives us the reasons why this is so. In order to fully comprehend the current trends he asks us to look back, contextualise and reflect on other radical changes, such as the greatest change of all, the transition from oral culture to the invention of writing, then the codex replacing the scroll, then the arrival of modern print, and finally the new electronic format. In modern times new competition has arrived, but neither radio nor television has managed to replace books or reading entirely. After a sustained assimilation process, peaceful arrangements and coexistence usually prevail.

Something similar is likely to happen with the new electronic possibilities, Darnton suspects. Despite all the frightening digital scenarios, books will still remain the most important storage container of the written word. Kindle and other modern electronic reading equipment may fulfil some functional need but the new reading toys need energy input, and they are not sand-, water- or wine-resistant (traditional books don't like those three elements either, but may survive exposure to them).

We should not panic. There may even be some flip side to the tossed coin: digital technology and modern information systems can be used to support books and texts, tell us about their location and content, and thereby make it easier to reach the physical shelves in the shortest time possible - thus leaving more time for reading.

The danger may actually lie somewhere else, but for some reason Darnton doesn't fully spell it out for us. As we know more and more about less and less, it is easy to predict where this road will eventually lead - either into the propaganda of the mainstream (the pile-it-high-and-sell-it-low bestsellers the chain bookstores are already trying to sell us) or knowing everything about nothing (expressed best in the allegory of the highly trained specialist who can't even peel an orange).

But then one should not expect all the answers from this important and highly readable book. Robert Darnton has made his case and has revealed his recipes for dealing with change. If only half of our universities could boast a brain such as his, the rhetoric of civilisational doom would be less successful.


Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer university professor and director of the university library at Harvard University. Educated at Harvard and the University of Oxford, Darton was a reporter for The New York Times before becoming a junior fellow at Harvard.

He subsequently taught at Princeton University for nearly 40 years before returning to Harvard in 2007.

A specialist in the history of France, Darnton's work was recognised by the French Government in 1999, when he was named a Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur.

His work in the field of the history of the book has been acknowledged by the International Gutenberg Society, which awarded him the Gutenberg prize in 2004, and the American Printing History Association, which presented him with an award for distinguished achievement in 2005.

The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

By Robert Darnton

Perseus, 240pp, £13.99

ISBN 9781586488260

Published 26 October 2009

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