Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Libraries are about much more than books.
Granted, there are caveats to such a declaration. After all, there are rare book libraries, manuscript collections, and many types of libraries that remain truly and narrowly focused around books (and printed materials). Nevertheless, when most people interact with a library – be it a public library or an academic library – they interact with more than just printed materials. In many a contemporary library the card catalog has migrated from the cards to the computers and a new generation of library users has come of age never knowing the joy of flipping through the card catalog (which really is a shame).
In an age of smart-phones, tablets, laptops, Google Glass, and e-readers it may seem that there is something rather dated about the sturdy old paper book. And yet it is precisely in an age of smart-phones, tablets, laptops, Google Glass, and e-readers that we should be able to see that books are amongst the best and most convivial of tools.
In contemporary society it is easy to get caught up in the fanfare around new technological tools – for one thing, there tends to be a very large propaganda advertising budget for such devices. Furthermore, the most ardent celebrants of a new tool often become so enamored of the devices they are advocating as to treat the devices as ends in and of themselves instead of as means to an ends. This is one of the great dangers of a technological society (as noted by the likes of Ellul and Mumford) – that far from promoting conviviality and equity that machines unthinkingly embraced ultimately come to promote little more than themselves and the interests of those whose power is linked to these devices.
Libraries stand at something of a remove from the standard market driven forces one encounters throughout much of society. The “ends” of the library is to provide access to information (limited as this sometimes is in certain types of libraries), not to make money for shareholders, or sell shiny devices. That libraries are so thoroughly nestled in the public/non-profit/activist/academic sphere is something of a testament to the field’s position as being beyond that which can be easily turned into a profit-seeking center. Perhaps it was this sense – amongst others – this emphasis on the commitment to provide information which undergirds Ivan Illich’s statement that:
“At its best the library is the prototype of a convivial tool.” (65)
Written in 1973, it is almost certain that the type of library Illich had in mind was one filled with books. Thus it is worth considering that some of the ways in which libraries have evolved as convivial tools (or convivial structures) may be closely linked to one of the main tools (if not the main tool) of the library: the book.
Consider the book for a moment – and here “the book” is the “the book as a physical object” distinct and separate from “the e-book” – it is generally conceived as a quantity of paper pages stuck together within a cover of a heavier type of paper (or cloth, or leather, or etc…) – the pages may be blank, but they are likely to be printed on and the content can be anything from…well…anything to anything. But let us consider the book a moment further – books come in many shapes and sizes, some are massive and some are pocket-sized, some are short and some are thousands of pages long. Books – to jump to the last page – take up physical space, potentially quite a bit of it, actually.
How many books can you easily carry with you as you go about your daily affairs? Ten? Five? How many books can you acquire before your shelves will begin to look cluttered? How many books could you possibly accommodate in your abode? On the cover it may seem that some of these are the questions which would lead one to conclude that e-books are an ideal alternative, but the problem with e-books is that they solve the problem of “physical space” and “carrying capacity” at the expense of one of the things that makes books truly wonderful – that books are an ideally convivial tool.
One of the great strengths of books is a result of one of their great weaknesses – namely their space and weight requirements – this strength is the way in which books encourage (or at least allow for) an ethos of sharing (of conviviality) in direct response to the challenges associated with a great quantity of books. After all, very few people (very, very few people) could afford to amass a personal collection of books of such size and scope as even that found in a fairly modest public library, but the need for a place to hold such an array helps necessitate a space (the library) where this ethic of shared access is a core value.
Yet, “library” is a term that one hears as often applied to small individual collections as to large institutional collections. The convivial aspect of books allows for the pleasure (and privilege) of lending books to others easily – when one says to a friend “you’ve got to read this, I’ll lend it to you” this works insofar as that person can actually lend the item (the book), whereas it would be substantially more difficult (if possible at all [if legal]) to do the same with an e-book. A book can move from one person to another, and even though it may obtain a few minor bumps and bruises it can continue to circulate – and every time it changes hands it tells a story beyond that enclosed in the pages, a tale of a tool (the book) that works wonderfully when shared.
In our highly technological times it is common to not see books as the technology that they are, though an argument could certainly be advanced that printing is one of the most transformative inventions in history. Yet there are several aspects of books that are worthy of extra attention when the book is forced to measure up against e-readers, computers, tablets and the like. It is not a matter of staking out a declarative position that books are better, but of indicating that if one is interested in the convivial potentialities of a given tool there are features of print books which make them preferable.
Firstly, a book does not know who has read it – though a record of the purchase may have been tracked (if it was made on a credit card [or online]) – and thus is unlikely to let such information loose.
Secondly, a book can take a fair amount of damage and still function, which is not to say that books should be treated carelessly; however, if you threw a book out of a second story window it would likely still be fine, if you threw an e-reader or tablet from a second story window…better not to.
Thirdly, as rare book libraries (and many libraries in general) make clear a book can last for quite a long time – a book that was printed thirty years ago will likely still be in fine working order today; how many pieces of computerized technology are there from thirty years ago of which the same would apply – or to put it another way, if you go out and buy a brand new e-reader and a brand new print book today, which of these will still be in fine working order in thirty years?
Fourthly – while the history of censorship of printed materials should not be discounted – the technologies involved in printing are relatively simple, relatively inexpensive, and relatively easy to distribute. Though this point may be of more value in relation to printed materials like newspapers than full books, the printed word can be more effectively resistant to control than what appears on the screen of a tablet or e-reader. A history of independent/alternative/subversive literature can retain autonomy from large systems in ways that much modern technological means for distributing such content are forced to rely on such systems (and here this blog admits its own shortcomings).
One of the challenges that libraries face in contemporary times is the tension between convivial values (premised on Mutual Aid and Self-Help) and the introduction into libraries of ever more tools which are less convivial than the library. Thus concerns about access and censorship on library computers pose the tricky question of the library’s “ends” versus new tools that may not be the most efficient means to those ends.
Libraries are about much more than books.
But insofar as books function as ideally convivial tools they remain ideal for libraries, and exemplary as tools for encouraging mutual aid.
Illich, Ivan. Tools for Conviviality. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973.