Sunday 5 June 2011
What about the books?
Lately I have been thinking about a technology that was invented quite a while back, books. Wow, people must think, a librarian thinking about books, how exciting.
But as recent events demonstrate, such as the outcry over the redevelopment at the University of Sydney, there's a curious thing about books: people are very attached to them. Not even an attachment to particular books, but rather to books as a conceptual whole, and I would really like to understand why.
Three years ago, Ars Technica published an article on the 2008 Digital Entertainment Survey from the UK, according to this survey print "books have the highest "attachment" rating of any leisure media activity. People are more attached to their books than they are to their satellite television, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, social networks, video games, blogs, DVDs, and P2P file-swapping." But recent reports show that just four years after they started selling e-books, Amazon is now selling more e-books than print books.
A similar contradiction has been shown by the illogical nature of the borrowing protests at the University of Sydney in which the very act of having to arrange a special protest to 'rescue' these books is admitting that they don't ordinarily use them.
The idea of books being mistreated will set any scholar aghast, except perhaps Dorothy Parker who so famously wrote that "this is a not a novel to be set aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." But what is it about books that people hold in such reverence? Are they not in fact a perfect demonstrate of mass production, one of the earliest I should imagine, in which hundreds of thousands of identical copies can be pumped out into the market. With the exception of books that are genuinely rare or historically significant, books are really little more than cereal boxes but filled with words and ideas rather than your morning cornflakes. I think the value of books is really about those little ideas inside the eye-catching paper casing, and I think the upset is because people have forgotten that unlike cereal, you don't need a physical object to contain ideas.
My own experience has been patchy, with periods of a deep love of the physical presence of books and the academic wallpaper they provide. But the longer I work professionally with books the less importance I place in the objects themselves and a period of buying and selling secondhand books really demonstrated the arbitrary nature of the value we place on them as objects.
When people feel books are under threat, the fear in their response is because they fear the knowledge those books contain is similarly under threat. People seem to me to be forgetting that the purpose of libraries isn't to be a shrine to the idea of the book, but rather a place to share knowledge in all it's forms and any people never seem to know the many creative ways libraries are cooperating through both digital, inter-lending and repository initiatives to ensure that members of any single library have access to knowledge that transcends the walls of their own library space. I feel that to win this battle, somehow libraries need to detach the concept of knowledge and the experience of exploring that knowledge from the object of a book and the physical experience of reading a book in order for people to understand the opportunities that the wider library community offers.
But these are just my thoughts on why people are so attached to books, what do you think?
Convenor ALIA Sydney