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November 19, 2007

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The future of book nostalgia: Anthony Grafton's New Yorker article on why libraries will always be with us shows the blinding power of book nostalgia.

What we owe: We need to fight to let the Internet we love be a settled part of our children's lives.


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The future of book nostalgia


Anthony Grafton's article in the November 5 New Yorker, Future Reading, intends to challenge the "infotopian" hyper-enthusiasm about online libraries. While Grafton acknowledges that "it's hard to exaggerate what is already becoming possible month by month and what will become possible in the next few years," he argues that the future will be continuous with the present as "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." 

Baloney. Yes, libraries will exist, and they'll still smell of varnish and mold, and some of us will continue to make important use of them. But Grafton seriously underestimates the existing and coming discontinuity. In fact, Grafton is so insistent on defending libraries that he lets his nostalgia overcome his logic.

His underestimation extends in both temporal directions.

Looking back, he treats the creation of concordances and indexes as essentially the same as what's going on digitally. For example, he paraphrases James O'Donnell's recent description of Eusebius' 3rd century Gospel cross-references as "the world's first set of hot links." This makes a point that doesn't really need making: Find me the infotopian who says that cross-referencing began with the invention of the digital hyperlink. Further, it understates the difference between a paper-based list of cross-references compiled by a scholar and a worldwide web of hyperlinks created by hundreds of millions of scholars, authors and readers. Grafton might as well say that electronic playlists are nothing new because LPs always listed their contents on their back covers.

Looking forward, Grafton argues for the inevitability of paper-based libraries to gain "deeper, more local knowledge." His language in his final paragraph leaves no uncertainty: To get past what your laptop can tell you as you sit "in your local coffee shop" — trivializing imagery — you "must" go to the library, for "only the library" can show you the "irreplaceable" paper-based works where "knowledge is embodied."

And his evidence for this? He repeats Paul Duguid's story from The Social Life of Information about an historian sniffing 250-year-old letters for traces of vinegar, which indicate the letters were sent from a town struck by cholera. He points to what we can learn from bindings and marginal annotations by "original writers and thinkers" (he names Martin Luther, John Adams and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and by "forgotten" people writing in their books. "If you want to capture how a book was packaged and what it has meant to the readers who have unwrapped it, you have to look at all the copies you can find, from original manuscripts to cheap reprints."

No doubt. But how many of us were doing that before the digital age? How many of us were tracking down every copy we could find of an historic book? Even scholars of, say, Leibniz don't actually travel the world's libraries finding every copy of every edition of Leibniz's works. Grafton is thus pointing to the needs of a tiny fraction of scholars to support his case for the broad necessity of libraries. We want those dedicated, specialized scholars to have access to the works they need, but that is hardly the path the rest of us take when we want more knowledge. Generally we put another quarter into the wifi, order another latte, and click on some more links.

The library Anthony Grafton celebrates is mustier than ever, for, if his view of the value of libraries is correct, even fewer people will be disturbing its dust.


Grafton tips his hat at the possibility of radical change, and he certainly acknowledges the power of what's been done digitally so far. But, he says that "For now and for the foreseeable future" we will need both the digital and the physical. He seems to mean the next decade or two. This he finds comforting. 

Grafton shouldn't get too comfortable. He might well be right about the next couple of decades, but, I think he misses three ways in which the future he sees could be disrupted rather rapidly.

First, he writes:

Though the distant past will be more available, in a technical sense, than ever before, once it is captured and preserved as a vast, disjointed mosaic it may recede ever more rapidly from our collective attention.

Having huge collections available to everyone online would seem to make the distant past more present than ever, and not just in a technical sense. Nevertheless, Grafton is pointing to a genuine problem:  The scanning projects are not resulting in "one accessible store of information." He might also have mentioned the role of copyright standing between us and what we need to know. But, who can tell? Maybe we'll get our heads right about copyright, and maybe the big scan collections will make enough metadata available that we can do searches that turn up hits across all of them. Metadata can make  collections more "fluid" in Kevin Kelly's sense than Grafton acknowledges. And that could come about faster and less traumatically than Grafton seems to recognize. For example, it's not hard to imagine circumstances in which the Open Library initiative really takes off, connecting editions of books in ways that open up scholarship, rather than requiring scholars to go on library crawls to find every edition.

Second, Grafton pays no mind to the collective power of readers. Our ability to pull pieces together for one another is quite remarkable. For example, while we have always been able to annotate physical books (well, not the books in the libraries that Grafton is praising), those annotations in the online world can become public. Because we don't yet have good and widely-used networked annotation systems, we don't yet have a lot of innovation about how to derive sense from the annotations of the "horde" (Grafton's term for Internet users). But we will. Think about what scholars could learn about our sociology by processing annotation patterns. Those contributions from readers  — Coleridge scholars and the "forgotten" — will be available to everyone with a browser, and not just to the dusty-shouldered scholar traveling to the obscure libraries spotting the globe.

Third, the entire publishing ecosystem will be radically disrupted once we have electronic book readers that work. The current Sony version apparently is ok for reading, and has the virtue of storing scores of books. But it still treats us like armchair potatoes who don't want to write in the margins or — more important — talk with one another as we read. Once we have networked, paper-quality book reading devices, reading will change from private to collaborative. That's disruptive economically, socially, and epistemologically. 

Finally, in all this nostalgia for printed books — which a glance at my office will show I share — Grafton misses the disruption that's already occurred. Digital writing isn't between covers. It's eruptive, ecstatic, self-transcendent...which is to say it's hyperlinked. This changes how we write, how we read, and how we shape knowledge. 

We will continue to need libraries for the reasons Grafton says, just as, in addition to millions of TV sets, Boston has a dozen live theaters. But increasingly the stacks will feel like places where knowledge is locked up, while online will be where we feel it is at work, at play, and set free.


Will we really give up on books so easily? We have so much invested in them. They shape knowledge. They prove expertise. They feel good. They smell like they're grown outdoors. Their heft impresses us with our wisdom.

Yet, we'll get over them. It might take a couple of weeks, but it'll happen. The day we have a portable, networked, interactive e-book that actually works, we'll start to  give up on the old mite-infested beasts. 

History suggests that we are perfectly capable of losing our romantic infatuations: 

At the Museum of the History of Science in Florence, you can see scientific instruments from the 16th and 17th centuries that are simultaneously works of art. Surely, we'd never demean G-d's creation by investigating it with plodding, pedestrian purely instrumental probes!

We used to decorate our weapons with fine filigree. Now, that looks like a waste of time and perhaps a glorification of killing. Modern Americans are happy to kill their neighbors with anything that goes boom.

What could be more integral to a musical performance than an instrument carefully made and beautifully decorated? That's why those electronic keyboards are so unpopular. Hah! Sure, many musicians still vastly prefer a Steinway to a plastic keyboard, but as we perfect electronic keyboards, the proportion of Steinways will continue to decline. 

The old radios were shaped like cathedrals. How could we ever give up on them, except maybe for, um, transistor radios, boom boxes, or iPods?

So, start preparing your book nostalgia now, you fickle creatures.


What happens to libraries? I keep coming back to this question and over the years I think I've come up with an answer: I dunno.

If your town didn't have a library and you were put in charge, what would you do? More to the point, in the near future when online, networked books are easily readable what would you do? 

Building a three-story, Greek-styled shrine to books will feel like a waste of space that could be devoted to human social learning. So, I think I'd build a large, well-lit facility that encourages both quiet reading and people interacting about what they're reading (and viewing and auditing). A mental gymnasium, so to speak. 

I would close the stacks where the physical books are stored to minimize the amount of space required to store them, for browsing is better accomplished digitally than in physical space; shelving books requires choosing only one organizational scheme for them, while digital collections can have as many slices, hyperlinks and recommendations as one wants. (If only someone would write a book exploring this notion!)

I'd want my town's new library to encourage as much synchronous and asynchronous conversation about its resources as possible. Book clubs real and virtual. Signs begging people to annotate and underline the books (through virtual overlays, of course). Identifying experts (amateur and professional) in ten thousand fields who are willing to help out the n00bs. Providing recommendations based on every scrap of metadata that can be found, including the whiff of vinegar.

Our new town library would serve another vital purpose: Negotiating access to the maximum number of the world's works. Depending on how the economics of publishing go, we may continue to need libraries to provide free access to works that otherwise are for pay. If that means libraries have to introduce artificial scarcity — "The Library only has three concurrent licenses for this book. We will notify you when one of the copies is checked back in" — then, well, that's where we'll be. Or perhaps by then we will have figured out that copyright's restrictions hurt the public good more than its incentives  advance it.

And what about the librarians? The library is going to be more complex than ever. Librarians are going to have to manage not just the collections but all of the readers' contributions to them. We may look elsewhere for content expertise, but we'll look to librarians for help navigating the jungle of metadata. That's a job for information architects. Fortunately for the profession, the metadata jungle is propagating even faster than McDonalds is scorching the real world's forests.


Many of us share Grafton's nostalgia for books. But what will we miss about them, truly? The way they feel and smell? What does that have to do with knowledge, wisdom, understanding? We should not be shaping our systems of education and learning around the fetishes of collectors.

When we have interactive, networked, paper-quality devices, we will say good bye to books, and good riddance.

And our hearts will break a little.

NOTE: As I write this, by coincidence fanfares are sounding for Amazon's new e-book, called "Kindle." Here's Steven Levy's excellent article in Newsweek. You can read Slashdot's reaction here. Evan Schnittman at the Oxford University Press has a good post on the topic, although he feels that if Kindle doesn't work, no e-book will. I, on the other hand, think e-books are inevitable. (Everything Is Miscellaneous is available on Kindle.)

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What we owe

There's been a lively discussion internal to the Harvard Berkman Center (where I've had a fellowship for the past few years) about the terms "digital native" and "digital immigrant," occasioned by a book two members of the community — John Palfrey and Urs Gasser — are writing called Born Digital. Since not everyone born since, say, 1985 uses the Web, who exactly counts as a digital native? And the term "immigrant" lumps together people who have been using the Web since the Mosaic browser with people who fell onto the digital cabbage truck last week. Further, there are some people active in native rights issues who think it inappropriate to appropriate that term. So, the field's terminology is a mess.

But John and Urs' book is likely not to be a mess at all. It aims at introducing us to our kids, the ones who are texting while they're eating while they're ipodding while they're downloading while they're flirting while they're doing homework. Our kids' experience of the Internet is a lot different than ours.

John and Urs are doing the research right now, so I won't try to guess at the differences between how the Net looks to our kids and how it looks to us. But the fact that there are differences, and simply the fact that we are older and they are younger, lays an obligation on us. 

We need to leave them the best Internet we can.

Yes, this is like leaving them a livable earth. And while clean air and drinkable water are immeasurably more important than the Internet, our digital responsibility is especially sharp. Our chore is not to maintain the Internet. It is to shape it, form it, and set its foundations in technology, policy, economics, law and ethics so our children can simply use it.

We can argue over what the shape of that gift should be. I would fight for an Internet that makes as few assumptions as possible about what it is to be used for (AKA an "end-to-end" architecture). But make no mistake: We are in a fight. This is our fight, for our children. 

The next few years will determine whether our gift to our children will be simply the latest medium for delivering content or a new public space alive with discussion, creation, and possibility. 

If we win, the Internet as we've known it and loved it will be simply a settled part of experience, and our children won't know that it was ever at issue. Their ingratitude will be our great reward. 

Editorial Lint

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