Will books and Libraries dodofy anytime soon?

The New Yorker is a powerfully engaging read. Before his untimely death in a car crash, the wonderfully versatile Rob Amato e-spoke to me about his plan (or was it still a dream?) of creating a local paper called The Johannesburger, what a mouth-watering prospect this would have been.

The following referral, however, comes from TL INFOBITS, a remarkable resource from the ITS Teaching and Learning division at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  I receive TL INFOBITS, edited since its 1993 inception by UNC Academic Outreach Consultant Carolyn Kotlas, every month through a free email subscription.

The New Yorker Anthony Grafton’s “Future Reading: Digitization and its Discontents” asks if digital-publishing initiatives from Google, Amazon.com, Microsoft and others, signal the end of the printed book and, by association, the public library.

Grafton quotes Google’s mantra “build a comprehensive index of all the books in the world” and considers the idea of a ‘library-of-all-libraries’ – a mammoth conglomeration of published material, digitised and automatically cross-referenced with billions of other, like-minded, units of information.

This, after all, was the dream of visionaries like Vannevar Bush who, as early as 1945, suggested a machine, called Memex, that relies on “associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.”

So, is the printed book destined to ‘dodofy’ (go way of the Dodo)? Grafton doesn’t think so: “these streams of data, rich as they are,” he says “will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you. The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books.”

I agree wholeheartedly, for now, and wish to add a personal caveat: in his seminal work “The Gutenberg Galaxy“, Marshall McLuhan argues successfully that the Industrial Revolution can only be understood correctly against the background of the invention of the printing press and the dawn of typography – some 350 years earlier. Using the same principle (allowing for a much shorter gap, due to the speed of technological development,) one can guess that the socio-cultural ramifications emanating from the advent of the internet will only become evident in years to come.

This means that even through printed books and libraries may still exist, it is not possible to assess how will digital publications, SMS, “texting” language and the immediacy of digital information affect what we read, how we read it and where we find knowledge currently located in books which are stored in libraries.

Don’t we wish we still had Marshall McLuhan with us!