Death of a thousand paper cuts

Two recent articles in the mainstream press are telling us that paper books and physical libraries are dead (Boston Globe and One of the easiest things to forget about the death of the book is for how many years it has been declared. A few quotations from past decades, from authors who were responding to the idea of the death of the book, the first from a 1955 article by Lester Asheim:

Each paper [in a conference on the future of the book at the Graduate Library School] attempts … to look with equal objectivity at the book and the nonbook against the kind of society which, in the immediate future, will form the audience for communication of all kinds. The strong and weak points of the several devices, books included, are evaluated, and there is no underlying assumption that the book has less to offer than the other devices or that it is too inflexible to meet the emerging challenge and is therefore foredoomed. The death of the book is more likely to be hastened by those who adamantly insist on retaining, for twentieth-century purposes, the nineteen-century form of the book than it is by those who are willing to examine that form for inadequacies that can be corrected.

– Lester Asheim, “Introduction: New Problems in Plotting the Future of the Book.” Library Quarterly 25 no. 4 (Oct., 1955), pp. 281-292.

That October, 1955 issue of Library Quarterly (which I would love to publish as a monograph) was a collection of conference papers on the future of the book (also called the death of the book). The idea of the death of the book was an immediately understood implication of automation, cybernetics, information science, computing – that new area of technology that burst forth after World War II. The “communications revolution” is something that has been in progress longer than most of us have been alive.

A decade later, America was dealing with Sputnik. We made big investments in the educational sphere, especially the sciences but also the humanities, and ideas about technology in education were hotly circulated. Look at this excerpt from an article in a 1966 issue of College English:

Now, after making this plea for the gadgetry of teaching, let me turn about and say that if we allow this revolution in education to give us nothing more for the teaching of literature than an arsenal of machinery and curricular gimmicks, then we will have merited the scorn of our day and succeeding days. I understand that teachers have a long way to go in combing the gimmickry out of the new math and the new sciences.

There is one teaching aid, a visual aid, which I want to single out from the others and recommend – not one of the newest, it’s true, but one that has proved helpful for some time. I mean the book. Prompted by the Congressional hearings on the new copyright law being drafted over the last two years, textbook publishers have sent out letters declaring their doubts about the future of the book. And while lamenting the impending death of the book, they seem to conclude that it is the teacher who will be guilty of librocide. They seem to fear that books are going out of use – that the literary works in our courses will reach the students by means of photocopy or film projection or recorded voices, or perhaps by a type of osmosis or – who knows? – by the electronic transfer of literary essences to the reader, the patient, without the use of language.

Fascinating as some of these possibilities are, I still have faith in books, and I intend to keep using them in my teaching…

-Arlin Turner, “Literature and the Student in the Space Age.” College English, Vol. 27, No. 7 (Apr., 1966), pp. 519-522

These are pre-internet writings, of course. The technology revolution of today is not the technology revolution of yesterday. But without looking at the way these discourses got going it’s easy to miss how much of what is said now is a repetition of things that were said 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago.

For example, have a close read of this abstract to an article from the October, 1971 issue of Library Quarterly, “Books and Marshall McLuhan,” by Sam Neill:

Marshall McLuhan, who has gained a reputation as an enemy of books because he has called them obsolete while concentrating his analysis of communication media of the electric variety, is, in fact, a man of the book as much as any librarian; although librarians have tended to ignore him, considering him to have no relevance for their “science.” This is to their detriment. Not only is the format of his books of interest, as a mirror of his message, but there is also evidence that his purpose is and has been from the beginning to find the peculiar qualities of print and books which make them necessary to man. He finds these qualities not in the content but in the form; qualities which provide a sensory balance of objectivity and perspective as opposed to the field perceptivity of television. In tracing the evidence of McLuhan’s concern for the future of the book, we can see him as one who has, perhaps, a greater perception of the value of books and libraries, for civilization, than many librarians.
– Sam Neill, “Books and Marshall McLuhan.” The Library Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Oct., 1971), pp. 311-319.

If you know me, you know I think that the ideas discussed in that article are still very relevant. However, coming up with that view is easy, because someone with an interest in media would have trouble avoiding those ideas. It’s tougher to see what needs to be said in 2009 that has not been said yet.

The authors of those articles in the Boston Globe and seem rather typical of writers in the popular press who have been talking about the death of books and libraries for decades, in that they don’t seem particularly oriented to either to begin with. Unfortunately, I think this would be an accurate description of many of the people who hold the purse strings of libraries, the administrators at the city, county, and university level. They represent a type that has always been with us. Their confidence may serve as a bellweather, but I wouldn’t look to them for new insights.

I would say, let library users and book readers tell us when libraries and books are dead. If their numbers are diminishing, this is a problem, but does not imply an immediate need to broaden our scope to encompass more and more sensory-stimulating crap that people prefer over books. The result of that strategy would only be that the library would cease to represent reason, thought, and genuine learning for empowerment and development. The more people in general turn away from books, the more important it becomes for us to preserve culture and to maintain a space that facilitates real learning, for if we don’t preserve that possibility for society, it is set to disappear.

5 comments on “Death of a thousand paper cuts

  1. Isn’t there a quote somewhere that says something to the effect that “We are always only one generation away from barbarism.”

    The richest line in the Boston Globe story was:

    “This isn’t Fahrenheit 451. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.”

    “Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a ‘learning center,” though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, … Read Morethey are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels.”

    Gaa, what a superficial reading of Fahrenheit 451; Um, sorry, but this is EXACTLY what Ray Bradbury was worried about in Fahrenheit 451, and he has said so himself. This administrator should go to her fancy new media center to watch the 1960s film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, especially the scenes with Guy Montag’s multi-media addicted wife who can’t tear herself away from the wall-to-wall video screens…maybe the irony would sink in then.

  2. I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it’s an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio

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