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The future of the book

I just came from a discussion of the future of the book at Harvard, although it was actually more like the propedeutic for that discussion. Quite fascinating though.

First spoke Ann Blair, a history professor at Harvard, who has a book on the history of information overload (particularly in the early modern period) coming out in the fall of 2010. She talked about how printed books were first received: Positively, the printing press was appreciated for the labor it saved (an early estimate said that four men in one day could create as many books with a printing press as ten could do with a quill in a year) and for driving down the cost of books. (You had to count on selling 300 copies before you’d break even, whereas hand-copied manuscripts were done on commission.) But people also complained because printed books were often shoddily done, and there were too many of them. Ann cited Pliny saying that here is no book so bad that some good cannot be made of it, balanced by Seneca who urged people to read a few books well. [Classic fox vs. hedgehog matchup.]

She then pointed to 16th-17th century references books, including dictionaries, collections of beautiful and elevating sentences (“florilegia”) [twitter, anyone?] and commonplace books. Printing made it possible to have very big books. One of the commonplaces started with 1.5M words, was revised to include 4.5M and had a sequel with 15M words. (Wikipedia had 511M words the last time Ann checked.) Conventions, therefore, arose for finding your way through all those words. Some techniques were typographical (Aristotle’s text in bigger letters, followed by commentaries, etc.) but indexes became more sophisticated. The 15M commonplace book had over 100 pages of entries on a single word, for example (“bellum,” “war”). The indices sometimes had mutliple levels of indentation.

Ann finished by showing an illustration of a 1689 piece of furniture the size of a closet, designed to organize knowledge. There were 3,000 hooks for headings, with multiple hooks for slips of paper under each heading.

I asked whether the availability of slips of paper encourage the de- and re-structuring of knowledge. Ann answered first by talking about the history of slips of paper — the printing press drove up the demand for paper and thus drove down its cost — and then said that it’s hard to gauge the effect on thought because writers were already collecting miscellanies, such as commonplace books.

Ann also explained that large alphabetical concordances had already been created before slips of paper by assigning a letter to each monk and having him go through the Bible looking for each word that begins with that letter.

Then John Palfrey gave a talk about how the world and books look to those born into the digital age. To these digital natives, said John, the world doesn’t divide into online and offline; it’s all converged. They assume digital access. (YouTube is the #2 search engine, JP said.) They expect to be co-creators. They also give away too much information and need to learn to do for themselves the gatekeeping that used to be done for them. The opportunities are huge, JP said, for creativity, reuse, and making knowledge together. JP expects libraries will continue to become social spaces where we learn and explore together, and he expects physical books to persevere because they are so well engineered for knowledge and extended argument. [Personally, I’m not convinced of that. I think books may turn out to be an accident of paper. Check back in 30 years to see who’s right.]

A fascinating afternoon. I wish it had gone on longer.

During the Q&A, Robert Darnton, Harvard’s head librarian, responded to a criticism of the new tools for navigating the university’s collection, by saying that it was still “in beta.” It’s open to all to suggest improvements, many of which have already been incorporated. For me, hearing Harvard’s chief librarian talk about a catalog being “in beta” says it all. (Darnton also talked about Harvard’s position on the Google Books settlement, about which he has been a prominent and eloquent critic.) [Tags: ]

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