|There are enormous economic and ecological disadvantages to the all-digital library.|
I'm a lifelong technologist who's been on the Internet since the late 1980s. I make my living designing and promulgating services that run on the World Wide Web. I should know better than most that print is dead, the book is obsolete, the future belongs entirely to digital transmission, and the screen's the place for reading. This is not going to be a quickie book about using the Web, writing Java, or any of those hot topics. So why am I contributing to a dead medium?
Because paper persists. A paperback book is the best way for me to communicate a fairly lengthy and complex narrative discussion.
Paper persists. The physical print collections in public and academic libraries will continue to grow and be central to the missions of those libraries.
Books continue to matter, now and for any plausible future. Not as the only means to transmit information, entertainment, and knowledge--that hasn't been true for more than a century. Not as the dominant force among media--that hasn't been true for decades. But as a vibrant, healthy medium--one that serves a variety of needs better than any alternative and that makes good economic, ecological, and technological sense for the new millennium--the book just isn't going away.
Neither are print magazines, such as the one you're reading now. Magazines and journals are very different sets of media with different strengths, characteristics, and problems; the very real problems of scholarly journals don't have much to do with the future of magazines--but that's another topic, to be taken up some other time.
If your first reaction to this article's title was "Well, of course" then you're in the mainstream for 1998--but you might have been considered a Luddite among high-ranking librarians of the 1980s and early 1990s. If your reaction is "That's stupid. Print is dead: that's inevitable" then you'll dismiss this article anyway, and might as well turn the page now. Outside the library profession, prophecies of the death of print and the all-digital future began in the late 1980s, reached a peak around 1992-1994, and are now declining into the oblivion they deserve. Within the field, however, the "common knowledge" that print was dying seems to go back much further, typically as part of a clarion call for libraries to reinvent themselves for the all-digital future.
That all makes pretty good sense--although I would argue that most of those "whens" should be "ifs." In the early days, some of them probably were stated as "if and when."
But then two things happened, over a period of years:
The great technological handwave turns "ifs" into "whens" and "whens" into "just a couple more years." The great technological handwave rejects budgetary arguments, since as we all know technology just keeps getting cheaper and cheaper until it's essentially free.
The cousin of the great technological handwave is that magic word "inevitable." The great digital convergence? Inevitable. The death of print? Inevitable. Which is another way of saying, "you probably won't like this, and I can't make a compelling case." If the case is strong, the I-word is pointless. These days, inevitability is invoked whenever one questions the common assumptions of the past. What once was desirable is now inevitable. When you hear "inevitable," substitute "rowrbazzle." It means as much and it's more fun to say.
As for the great technological handwave? Technological improvement is neither smooth nor entirely predictable, even vastly-improved tools rarely catch hold immediately, and most new devices and techniques never become important. Paraphrasing Paul Saffo, it's true enough that we tend to overestimate the short-term significance of new technologies and underestimate their long-term significance--but Saffo fails to point out that, perhaps 80 percent of the time, the new technologies simply disappear or fade into specialized use.
Unless you really did fly to work in your personal helicopter from your solar-powered household, or sat back as your car drove itself on today's digitally-controlled freeways, you would do well to treat the great technological handwave with a smile and deep distrust.
|If every long text is printed out each time it is used... a typical public library would spend much more on printing and licenses than its current total budget and would use at least 50 times as much paper as at present.|
It hasn't happened, and there's every reason to believe that it won't. Reading from digital devices, whether portable or desktop, suffers in several areas--among them light, resolution, speed, and impact on the reader--and there has been essentially no improvement in any of these areas in the last five years.
Many futurists have conceded this point. They now admit that people will print out anything longer than 500 words or so. It's just too hard to read from a computer, and it doesn't seem likely to get a lot easier. If every long text is printed out each time it is used, there are enormous economic and ecological disadvantages to the all-digital library: briefly, a typical public library would spend much more on printing and licenses than its current total budget and would use at least 50 times as much paper as at present.
|The public as a whole has no need for--or interest in--digital book equivalents.|
Two-thirds of adult Americans, and a higher percentage of children, use their public libraries. Roughly two-thirds of adult Americans purchased books last year. I'd guess that an even higher percentage reads magazines or newspapers. Is it possible that electronic tablets could achieve such ubiquity in the next few years--or even the next couple of decades? I doubt it.
One academic library expert anticipated in 1992 that the market for information printed on paper would shrink by 50 percent within five years. By the end of 1997, the market for information printed on paper was substantially larger than in 1992.
Print publishing is actually several related industries, most of which are healthy and growing. For a variety of reasons, not the least being people's preferences, I don't see the situation changing soon. Publishers don't spend much time these days talking about the death of print--that was last decade's news. They certainly hope to be part of the new markets that complement print, but they know print isn't going away.
|The Library of Congress continues to acquire new print materials much faster than it digitizes old ones.|
The book I wrote with Michael Gorman, Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality (ALA Editions, 1995), deals with conversion questions in some detail. The digital conversion efforts being mounted by the Library of Congress and a cluster of university libraries provide strong indications of what's happening. To wit, collections of material will be digitized, primarily material that can't be made available otherwise: unique photographs, manuscripts, brittle books of unique importance, and the like. My organization, the Research Libraries Group, is involved in such efforts, as are many others. These projects will yield digital collections that enhance and extend libraries. They will not yield all-digital libraries, and there's no indication that such efforts would ever scale up to complete conversion.
The Library of Congress continues to acquire new print materials much faster than it digitizes old ones. If anyone still has universal conversion as a goal--which I doubt--we're moving backwards.
"Essentially free" is another way of saying "phenomenally expensive, but the incremental cost becomes small." "Essentially free" is a technological handwave. It's always wrong. If it is possible to build an international network that could actually provide everyone with universal multi-way video-speed communications capabilities, from any point to any point, it would probably cost hundreds of billions of dollars--and as projections of the possible revenue become more realistic, the will to spend that money vanishes.
"Essentially free" is essentially nonsense. Yes, a $2500 PC purchased today is some 75 times as powerful as the $2500 PC of 1988-- but that doesn't mean you can buy a useful PC for $33! Technology doesn't work that way; increased performance for a price doesn't mean that prices keep going down for acceptable performance.
|It's unreasonable to expect publishers to survive--or the editorial, acquisition, publicity, and other publishing functions to continue--if they face the possibility of a single copy being sold, then distributed universally.|
But it won't happen that way. The Association of American Publishers, for one, has made it clear that their view of digital resources in libraries is strictly pay per view, with libraries essentially serving as distributors for the publishers. The publishers' attitude is justified. It's unreasonable to expect publishers to survive--or the editorial, acquisition, publicity, and other publishing functions to continue--if they face the possibility of a single copy being sold, then distributed universally. For that matter, what non-academic author will write if the total compensation is royalty on a single copy?
It's not a sufficient answer to say that digital resources can be made available with simultaneous user restrictions, so that only one or two readers can use them at a time. For online indexes, that methodology makes perfect sense; it's how RLG typically sells Eureka and Zephyr services, for example, and increasingly how other online resources are sold.
But what do simultaneous-use restrictions mean for digital book replacements, where users will read from printed copies? The restriction lasts long enough for a reader to download the file; then another user can happily download it while the first is printing it locally. The net effect is still publication without repeat sales.
What the publishers want is a hefty fee each time a file is touched or downloaded or examined to any real extent. Is that unreasonable? Perhaps not, where end-users are concerned. When you add the cost of printing to the download fee, the end-user's cost is likely to be comparable to what they'd pay to buy the item now (although the resulting stack of paper won't be as convenient as a book). But for libraries, as compared to circulating or reference collections of published books, it's a terrible idea.
Publishers have accepted (if not always graciously) the idea that one copy of a book will be read sequentially by quite a few different people. They produce mass-market paperbacks to encourage people to buy copies of some books, at a price less than that of photocopying a library book and yielding a much more convenient (and legal) product. This continuing balance has worked to the mutual benefit of publishers and libraries.
In an all-digital age, things would be different--and I see no likelihood that the differences would favor libraries. Publishers issue papers calling for cooperation with libraries, but only on publishers' terms. And, I say again, those terms are at least partly reasonable.
Why did so many futurists and technologists proclaim the death of print in the past, and why do some still do so? A variety of motives present themselves, including the simplification that comes with projecting visions for the future; taking narrow perspectives on technological possibilities, without considering broader issues; assuming that everyone has the same fascination with the new and impatience with the old that some futurists exhibit; and even the need to be controversial.
Whatever the reasons, some still proclaim that the all-digital future is just around the corner, ready to sweep away all traditional media in a grand, enlightening convergence. Some will even tell us that history is dead--that the history of new media altering but rarely obliterating older media, the history of people adding new choices without eliminating older choices, the history that shows most technological innovations simply failing, that all this history is simply irrelevant.
Since claims that history is dead cut off logical discussion just as surely as claims of inevitability, the only reasonable response to such claims is: "Nonsense. People are still people, and neither history nor natural laws have been repealed."
Sensible thinkers have pretty much abandoned the death-of-print school. When Bill and Melinda Gates established the Gates Library Foundation last year, they deliberately used the word "library" and asserted that books would continue to be at the core of good libraries in the future, even as they help libraries to expand their resources beyond books. Indeed, some editors of Wired magazine, home to one of the most assertive death-of-print claimants, have admitted that when complex thoughts need to be understood, boring old books work best.
No doubt the amount of raw data generated and stored does double every five years. It's certainly true that the number of characters printed in books in any given year is trivial compared to the number of bytes of raw data generated in that same year. That's been true for some time now; it's also entirely irrelevant. It not only compares apples with oranges, it compares pineapples with pole-vaulters.
A simple calculation will show how trivial the volume-of-raw-data argument really is. Let's say that 1.5 billion books are printed in the United States in a given year. At an average of 600,000 characters per book, that's 900 terabytes of "data." Now consider the broadcast of a three-hour World Series game seen by ten million people. Given that a standard TV signal uses a bandwidth of 5MHz, equivalent to 625,000 characters per second, those viewing that broadcast receive, in total, 6,750 terabytes: seven times as much as all the books for that year, in a single World Series game! (Similarly, more "information" enters my house each day on the 80-channel TV cable than I will ever read in books and magazines throughout my life.)
To which the only reasonable response is: "So what?" Raw data isn't information, and the fact that each television viewer sees "one book's worth" of raw data each second is irrelevant for any rational purposes.
Information requires mental or mechanical processing--it requires organization and context to make it at least minimally meaningful.
For that matter, books aren't entirely about information, any more than public libraries are entirely about information. Books are about meaning, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and narrative: words given life. Quoting from Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality:
Knowledge can be defined as information transformed into meaning... Understanding is knowledge integrated with a world view and a personal perspective and exists entirely within the human mind, as does wisdom, understanding made whole and generative.What of narrative? I use narrative as shorthand for literature of all sorts, including prose, poetry, nonfiction and fiction. There seems little doubt that narrative communicates best in printed form--that the interaction between author and reader, with the reader bringing his own mental images into play, works best in print.
True digital zealots will accuse me and other "book lovers" of being irrational--but a preference for a medium that works beautifully over one that works less well is not only rational, but eminently sensible.
It's been demonstrated repeatedly that people will pay to have good public libraries: most bond and tax override elections succeed. Those who have talked to the people consistently get a more refined message: what people want from their libraries most, and what they'll most readily pay for, is a good supply of books. Almost any public librarian in touch with their community, no matter how rich, advanced, or sophisticated the community, will have one answer to the question: "What single thing are your customers most ready to pay for?" The answer is always books--not "information" but books. Librarians ignore that answer at great peril.
One thoughtful analyst suggests that half of what's now printed in book form (that is, sheets of paper somehow bound into volumes) could be replaced by digital publishing and distribution, even as bookstores and public libraries thrive. How? By replacing most or all of the parts catalogs, operating manuals, maintenance guides and similar items that aren't meant to be read end to end, but require brief consultation from time to time. Such replacement should help traditional book publishing by reducing the demand for paper, ink, and press time, and by further weakening the already-questionable ecological arguments against printed books. These changes would further increase the ratio of stuff that's only in digital form to stuff that's in printed form, but that's a pointless ratio in any case.
Books matter, and will continue to matter, because people learn from them and enjoy reading them. Public and academic libraries will continue to rely heavily on printed collections because they work so well for the ideas of the future as well as the record of the past and present. Of course, libraries will extend those printed collections with in-house media collections, borrowed physical resources, and an ever-growing array of digital publications and online retrieval: that's neither revolutionary nor even new.
Author's Note: Portions of this article (specifically the PowerPoint fable) first appeared in different form in speeches delivered in late 1996 and early 1997. If you were expecting a personal computing article here, don't worry--I'll still be writing those, mixed roughly half and half with essays on the future of media and libraries. Although you can't place advance orders for my next book yet (its current working title is Being Analog: Building Tomorrow's Libraries), Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality continues to be great reading--and it won't be replaced by the new book.
Communications to the author should be addressed to Walt Crawford, Research Libraries Group, 1200 Villa Street, Mountain View, CA 94041-1100; 650/691-2227; Fax 650/964-0943; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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