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? 

Kate Byrne
Convenor ALIA Sydney


  1. When my kids were little the Lemony Snickett 'Series of Unfortunate Events' books were released and were an instant hit with my kids for a number of reasons - most of which had nothing to do with the content of the book. They were published in small format, nice to hold, with beautiful shiny covers and rough cut pages. The physical experience of reading these books is still something my kids talk about - long after the actual stories have been forgotten.

    I really don't know where I am on this issue. I get the need to deselect, weed and make room in library collections, freeing up cash for electronic resources that actually get used and making physical space for the things people like to do in 'library as place'.

    When it comes to my personal collection though, it's quite different. I no longer need to keep every book I've ever bought - I can apply deselection to my own collection but I love that I can re-read, lend them to friends, use beautiful book marks, scribble in the margins (a phase I went through with self-help books) and just hold them in my hand.

    I can see the advantages of an e-book reader, I wouldn't have to carry heavy books in my handbag, I can get a new book instantly downloaded without having to wait for delivery or wait to go to the shop. BUT! I can't read in the bath or drop it in the sand at the beach.

    I don't think we will ever see the end of the physical book - the end of it as default choice definitely and I see academic libraries in the future virtually book-free but as for my personal attachment........

    A longer conversation for another time perhaps :-)

  2. I read your post and found myself nodding along with what you had to say. I think people are in love with the idea of the book, and they feel very uneasy when they see the physical book, something they have always known, start to lose its relevance and in some cases, start to disappear.

    I work in a secondary school library, in a 1:1 laptop school, and we have seen our non-fiction increasingly lose its relevance as our students find online resources that meet their research needs. What's been interesting is to see people's reactions when we opened our new library. Both teachers and students bemoaned the fact that there were fewer books and suggested we needed to purchase more to build our collection. They said this, despite the fact that very few of them ever use the collection. My thinking is they just like the idea of a library populated with thousands of books.
    Now that we've created a new library with interesting collaborative spaces, our challenge is to get people to realise that they can use the library without having the need to access the print collection.

  3. Some people tell me that they like a book's 'physicality' (smell, texture, etc). I get that with books printed on nice paper, but not with your run-of-the-mill paperback. My interest is in what the author has to say, not so much in the medium in which it's presented.

    I find the 'borrowing protest' interesting. I would have thought it better to have the highly used items on the shelf so that it would be easier to find what you need. The rarely used stuff, which would be archived, only gets in the way.

  4. I've been reading more books since I got an iPad! I'll even admit that after reading for a while entirely on the iPad I went back to a physical book and was surprised when I touched the page and it didn't turn by itself! I go back and forth mostly reading classics for free or the latest trashy fiction as ebooks. I also have plenty of amazing hard copy art, photography and rare books that will never be replaced by an e equivalent. Sometimes it's about the container and sometimes it isn't! Great post Kate!