Monday, June 18, 2007

Are Books Still Necessary?

Courtesy of Pajamas Media, a provocative piece by Zach Sims discussing the fate of books in the digital age. Here's a snippet:

At this stage, the future of books remains to be seen. While society is seeing a large transformation from the physical written word to the intangible word, we’re seeing an increased output. Today, the web doesn’t just make it easier to read, it makes it easier to write. The millions of blogs on the Internet no doubt have spurned a new generation of readers and writers. Those that write, seeking to find readers for their content, peruse other blogs as well. As previously mentioned, newspapers like the New York Times finally see increased value in the Internet. The majority of their content is online, and an easy to use newspaper-like interface, for those who prefer it, is available. Zinio Reader also makes it easy for users to download magazines, or have them pushed, to their desktops for easy reading. While it might be difficult to read from a computer screen, it’s occupying more and more of our time.

That’s not a bad thing. It has, however, changed the way we focus our attention, and the way we perceive a piece of writing. The nature of the Internet lends itself to shorter entries, not lengthy text entries. While the previously mentioned Zinio Reader helps to mimic the feel of a real magazine on a computer, and Sony’s Reader is rather similar to a book, consumers won’t see something as easy to read as a physical book or a magazine for years to come. Wired Magazine covered the “snack culture” in a previous issue, explaining that society has come to expect short snippets of text and entertainment, as opposed to the lengthier features we find in commercial productions like feature films and books.

Obviously, I am the last person who should criticize blogs. The Internet has become a remarkable tool for disseminating ideas and information, and a source of empowerment for many who would otherwise go unheard. However, I hope I'm not alone in finding the second paragraph troubling.

If Sims is correct, then the tendency of all too many students to settle for what they can find online when doing research is symptomatic of a broader societal trend. Yes, short snippets are nice, and no one likes to read long blocks of text online. Unfortunately, the result of this is a culture built on shallow, superficial thinking and miniscule attention spans, where the majority of people are simply too lazy to explore ideas and concepts in depth.

Just in case the above passage isn't enough, Sims' next two paragraphs are sure to provoke a response from almost all librarians who read them:

For those still interested in reading books, however, the web has made that easier as well. Sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari give users an unprecedented set of tools to use in their quest for the perfect book. Now, with a single click, users can access reviews, analysis, book information, and more. In addition, they can talk about the book with friends and other website participants, making the necessity of proximity a thing of the past for those looking to form book groups. The new services also seek to replace librarians. Along with Amazon’s backend for book recommendations, the two new services hope to provide suggestions to users on books they might like by utilizing the books they list in their profile. Do librarians know of every book you’ve liked and disliked? I doubt it.

The change has already been initiated. Thousands of individuals rarely pick up books anymore, trading the heavy, physical medium for something accessible everywhere and any time: the Internet. Those without experience on the Internet will protest the day when readers banish books to a dark corner of their rooms, but I, for one, will applaud that day, for it will herald the arrival of a new era; one where people both contribute their literary works and read the works of others with a higher frequency than ever before.

(Emphasis added-DD)

Wow, where do I begin? To start with, I think it's pretty clear where Mr. Sims stands on the whole patron privacy issue. Frankly, as a librarian, I neither want nor need to know "every book you’ve liked and disliked". My job is to help you find the books and other resources that will best meet your information needs. Some may be surprised to hear this, but I don't actually deliver print outs of patron circulation records to my nearest FBI field office on a weekly basis. Except under extraordinary circumstances, knowing a user's individual reading habits is not information librarians need to have.

As for the second paragraph, I have plenty of experience on the Internet, but I will vehemently "protest the day when readers banish books to a dark corner of their rooms". I've already explained why. I just hope that technology such as print on demand ensures that books remain an important means of education and entertainment.


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