After a delightful weekend away from the keyboard, I’d planned to return, refreshed and ready to talk about something other than publishing. But even as I was shopping and cooking and pretending to clean, something kept nagging at me. It became more insistent as I parked myself in my the backyard yesterday, book in hand.
When it comes to new media, it’s not paper-versus-bytes argument. For those who have a “passion for paper”, as Inside Higher Ed’s Alex Golub does, there is no issue. Except that of the cost of paper increasing while the cost of bytes decreases, but I think we’ll still be at the very affordable level for the foreseeable future.
Golub lays out his digital cred with a string of buzzwords, but then goes on to wax poetic on the beauty of paper, citing its corporeality as its distinguishing feature. Fair enough. I joke that I can remember everything I’ve written in my paper journals. The truth is, I’ve possible forgotten a few things, but the important stuff, I know the page and what the chicken scratch looks like. I invested something of myself in that paper. Paper good.
But Golub then takes a disturbing left turn. After snarking that Amazon.com, with all of its underlying technology, has managed to discern that he, an academic, might like the Illiad due to his fondness for Plato’s Republic, Golub dismisses the curatorial aspects of online media, not really considering that Amazon.com isn’t the right resource for the kind of books he’s seeking. He prefers physical librarians with their physical libraries and all the accompanying limitations.
This allows me to tell my favorite story about my mother. She’s a librarian in an elementary school. Has been my entire life. It’s pretty cool when you are a natural reader and your mom is feeding your habit with every new book that crosses her desk. I had a great childhood.
My mom’s library is currently residing in a pretty poor school in a California school district. The “No Child Left Behind” program has, not ironically, cut funds for items like library books. Despite this, new books constantly arrive; that is the nature of libraries. Now, you’ve all been to an elementary school library — you know that storage is at a minimum. This means that every so often, my mother must go through the painful process known as “discarding.”
Golub cherishes the “multiple copy room” of Reed College, but even that room has physical limits, and librarians, as all good curators must, are forced to cull texts. This does not mean these books have no useful life. It simply means that the librarian-as-curator (and I believe this role will become increasingly critical and supremely powerful) had to make a choice based on the scarce resources available.
A few years ago, my mother had to make those choices. When I was a kid, we went to a conference featuring, to my mind, some of the biggest authors in the world: Leo Politti and Ray Bradbury. They were signing books for school libraries (or that’s how I remember it), and we, the students, got to take our library books up to the authors and get their autographs. Seriously, how cool is that?
Fast forward a few decades to a different library and a frantic discard process. My mother, having done this quite often, has a process. She works fast. She knows what stays and what goes. She came to a book, hadn’t been touched in years (she blamed Harry Potter and R.L. Stein), she “discarded” it, frowning as she noted that someone had scribbled on the title page.
Yeah, that darn Ray Bradbury — always defacing school property. What a scamp!
She rescued the book — an artifact of sorts from my childhood, though from a different library, I suppose (though, one surmises, these books move around, it could be the very same book) — but the fact remains that physical buildings have limitations. Online storage is virtually limitless, and I will disagree with my dying breath that paper books will survive the “The Big Electromagnetic Pulse” that will destroy all digital media. First off, if it’s that big, one can safely assume the planet as we know it is gone. Second, such an event would likely have repercussions, fire, faulty sprinkler systems, and other disasters. Books are a fragile medium, too.
There is no perfect storage for our human knowledge. Even the brain has limitations, being bound by birth and death as it is. Digital storage provides the opportunity for more knowledge to be accessible and for more copies to be stored in a usable manner (multiple copy room? why?). Digital media saves trees so dumping copies of Anna Karenina doesn’t impact our ozone layer.
I am amused that Golub believes the books chosen by his college librarians represent the best of the best — one believes he knows he’s getting a bit too poetic on the topic. The books chosen by his college librarians represent the best choices based on the information those librarians had at the time, including, of course, access to information about all the books written on those topics. Or perhaps a tenured professor’s ego trip. Or maybe, just maybe, that librarian’s personal bias. In fact, those books at Reed College represent someone’s personal choices with a nice institutional imprint.
Librarians of the future will continue to curate our world. Used bookstores will continue to tell the story of pop culture. Paper will continue to inspire passion. The limitations that Golub places on digital media exist in the corporeal world as well. The big difference, of course, is that it’s easier to add more electronic storage than it is to finance a new building.