The decline of books

[This posting is in response to a tiny thread on the NGC4Lib mailing list about the decline of books. –ELM]

Yes, books are on the decline, but in order to keep this trend in perspective it is important to not confuse the medium with the message. The issue is not necessarily about books as much as it is about the stuff inside the books.

Books — codexes — are a particular type of technology. Print words and pictures on leaves of paper. Number the pages. Add an outline of the book’s contents — a table of contents. Make the book somewhat searchable by adding an index. Wrap the whole thing between a couple of boards. The result is a thing that is portable, durable, long- lasting, and relatively free-standing as well as independent of other technology. But all of this is really a transport medium, a container for the content.

Consider the content of books. Upon close examination it is a recorded manifestation of humanity. Books — just like the Web — are a reflection of humankind because just anything you can think of can be manifested in printed form. Birth. Growth. Love. Marriage. Aging. Death. Poetry. Prose. Mathematics. Astronomy. Business. Instructions. Facts. Directories. Gardening. Theses and dissertations. News. White papers. Plans. History. Descriptions. Dreams. Weather. Stock quotes. The price of gold. Things for sale. Stories both real and fictional. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Consider the length of time humankind has been recording things in written form. Maybe five thousand years. What were the mediums used? Stone and clay tablets? Papyrus scrolls. Vellum. Paper. To what extent did people bemoan the death of clay tablets? To what extent did they bemoan the movement from scrolls to codexes? Probably the cultures who valued verbal traditions as opposed to written traditions (think of the American Indians) had more to complain about than the migration from one written from to another. The medium is not as important as the message.

Different types of content lend themselves to different mediums. Music can be communicated via the written score, but music is really intended to be experienced through hearing. Sculpture is, by definition, a three-dimensional medium, yet we take photographs of it, a two-dimensional medium. The poetry and prose lend themselves very well to the written word, but they can be seen as forms of storytelling, and while there are many advantages to stories being written down, there are disadvantages as well. No sound effects. Where to put the emphasis on phrases? Hand gestures to communicate subtle distinctions are lost. It is for all of these reasons that libraries (and museums and archives) also collect the mediums that better represent this content. Paintings. Sound recordings. Artifacts. CDs and DVDs.

The containers of information will continue to change, but I assert that the content will not. The content will continue to be a reflection of humankind. It will represent all of the things that it means to be men, woman, and children. It will continue to be an exposition of our collective thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and experiences.

Libraries and other “cultural heritage institutions” do not have and never did have a monopoly on recorded content, but now, more than ever, and as we have moved away from an industrial-based economy to a more service-based economy whose communication channels are electronic and global, the delivery of recorded content, in whatever form, is more profitable. Consequently there is more competition. Libraries need to get a grip on what they are all about. If it is about the medium — books, CDs, articles — then the future is grim. If it is about content and making that content useful to their clientele, then the opportunities are wide open. Shifting a person’s focus from the how to the what is challenging. Looking at the forest from the trees is sometimes overwhelming. Anybody can get information these days. We are still drinking from the proverbial fire hose. The problem to be solved is less about discovery and more about use. It is about placing content in context. Providing a means to understanding it, manipulating it, and using it to solve the problems revolving around what it means to be human.

We are a set of educated people. If we put our collective minds to the problem, then I sincerely believe libraries can and will remain relevant. In fact, that is why I instituted this [the NGC4Lib] mailing list.