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In Defense of the Physical

June 9, 2011

I entered library school with the vague, idealistic notion that books are awesome and I wanted to be around them always (preferably somewhere that paid me for the privilege).  This hasn’t changed.  What I did not expect was the adamant influence of digital resources within libraries and archives, which has often made me question the point of my life and my dreams of working with books that so very few people seem to care about.

Very Pretty Books, courtesy of Cornell University Library

There is beauty in a gilded volume that can never be found in even the highest quality PDF.  Digital documents can supplement information, but they cannot entirely replace physical books.  They can hold content, create access to information, and connect people in wonderful ways.  However, there is an aesthetic value to books beyond their literary or scientific merit.  Nobody will ever say, “this is the same digital file that was downloaded by [fill in the blank popular author]!” as they say “this was Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy, with margin notes and everything!”  There is a lack of historicity in the digital which I find troublesome, though I do admit that my romanticism of all books is impractical and often silly.

What irks me the most about the transformation to the “digital age” is not the technology, but the attitudes that stem from the technology.  More and more people are incapable of using books, finding books, and understanding how to conduct basic research.  Library reference sections are all but dead, being replaced by computer labs and study areas (at least in my personal experience).  Students enter university libraries, sometimes having never visited a library before in their lives, and have no idea how to read or find call numbers.  The handy dandy Ctrl+F function doesn’t work in the stacks, which means (gasp!) that people actually have to read to find things!  Why does this seem so daunting? This is what has been done for generations of researchers (who also had to walk uphill in the snow five miles to get to the school that only had two books, etc, etc).  Most troublesome is the notion that all information is on the internet, and if it’s not easily accessible by a Google search it must not exist or be worthwhile.  This hurts me.  Constantly looking forward to the next advances to make life “easier,” forgetting the things we already knew, can be detrimental both to the past and our understanding of the future.

None of these random thoughts are meant to discredit the great work being done in technology development.  Digital documents create access to more information for more people, which is what libraries have continually striven to do.  Researchers are no longer limited by their geographic bounds, to the few tomes available at their local libraries or even those contained in just one university.  I know that, even when I use books, most of my researching involves a computer.  Digital catalogs are infinitely more useful than card catalogs, and databases like JSTOR give me access to far more research than I could have done in one library, and in far less time.

Really, I don’t know what the future holds for information services.  I do know that nothing compares to wandering the dusty stacks of an old library, and I can only hope that future generations get that same experience.  I don’t think I’m in the minority, at least within the information field.  I suspect that even Steve Jobs, herald of so many new and frightening things, has a home library well stocked with books.  Technology and physical books can work in conjunction, not canceling each other out.  Attitudes of users must be more accepting this, open to the idea of the best access rather than latching onto the latest and greatest things.  Books have been around for centuries for a reason.

The Internet Archive has recently begun a massive preservation effort to store every book – this may or may not be plausible, but it is a good recognition of the value of the past.  For more discussion on the subject, see the Internet Archive’s post on the subject, which is far more detailed and clear than I could ever hope to be.

Perhaps we can find some sort of balance.  Not all books are worth keeping – there are many mass market books, poorly bound, with outdated information that has no historical value or appeal to readers.  We should recognize which books are important, what is worth knowing and remembering even in the case of a massive hardware failure.  We should most definitely not go back to a books only system; technological advances have entirely transformed research and knowledge, and mostly for the better.  We just should not forget the importance of what we had before, and remember that it still applies today.

Is the digital age unavoidable?  Can books persevere?  What are we losing in the digital conversion?  Is the Luddite in me just being too vocal and speaking in vague, impractical generalizations?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Graham Hukill permalink
    June 13, 2011 6:31 pm

    “connect people in wonderful ways…” I believe it’s connect people in “meaningful” ways.

    Just kidding, just kidding. Awesome post, couldn’t agree more on most fronts.

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