In graduate school for library science my favorite class covered the history of printing and publishing. We read a book called The Coming of the Book by Febvre and Martin. "The coming of the book" is a phrase that has stayed with me: it acknowledges that the slow and steady impact books had on human beings was transformative. Replicated books and broadsides, the ability to pass along those ideas physically to another person, created the desire to read and encouraged the ability to do so, for both sacred and secular purposes. One could read just for the hell of it. Cities which were centers of printing in Europe were inclusive and open-minded places. A free press was considered essential in the creation of our Constitution by those who had lived in England, which did not have a free press.
At the same time in our program we were adapting to the coming of the computer. New computer "card catalogs" sat on the sidelines in the two gigantic rooms full of card catalog furniture in the Doe Library at Berkeley. It was physically impossible for a university to keep creating room for card catalog furniture and the computer catalog was a step forward for storing this information. In another class we learned how to search expensive subscription databases, working out Boolean searches on paper before we even turned on the machine and logged in; it was possible to spend a hundred dollars in a matter of minutes when receiving citations and abstracts. The professor who taught us to program in Basic described a two way communication on computers where people talked to each other on bulletin boards, which I had a hard time envisioning. We fretted over the demise of whole libraries because of acidic paper; how would we save these books from destruction?
A mere twenty-three years later so much has changed. Do we even need to catalog books and create databases with formal Library of Congress subject headings? In library science there are advocates for "tag clouds" and other "folksonomies" as reasonable ways to create search terms and tags. We used to show people the Library of Congress subject headings so they'd know how to search for books, because the headings were never intuitive and never used keywords. We never use Boolean searching anymore. In the 1980's we wanted to avoid getting irrelevant data because we had to pay for all the results. Now we may get thousands of irrelevant hits on any search, but it's no big deal to receive the results, move through them, ignore them. Google Books and its copying of old books may solve the problem of the crumbling library.
In school we learned that we really were talking about information--its storage and its retrieval, its organization into schemas of human knowledge; we were not really talking about books at all: a book was merely a frame for information. Human language and record keeping have been held in many formats: the "word-hoard" and then on clay, stone, wax, paypyri, vellum, early hand-copied codices; furthermore, libraries and archives also stored sheet music, maps, photographs and reproductions, blueprints, notes, ledgers, personal papers, and endless iterations of magazines, journals, and newsprint. In some fields the research in journals is much more important than what gets into a book, which becomes out of date the minute it's conceived. I learned that the book itself was merely a physical manifestation of the need and desire to keep a record of a text, an idea, a record, research, wisdom, location, and memory, and now it looks like we are nearly at the end of the book and paper as the way to hold and frame it. I could accept and envision other ways to keep information, but I didn't think I'd see the demise of the book in my lifetime, and yet I think it's coming. The business of publishing, created by the Elsevier Press and others in the Renaissance, is changing and we all know it, anecdotally and otherwise. We see it happening around us, librarians and writers both. We feel it: a huge change in the works, as we live and breathe, the extinction of something and the loss of its habitat.
At work meetings with other library managers, we've discussed this: what is a library going to look like without the paper items? Some of us have mourned the loss of the book as well as the very current demise of physical newspapers and magazines. Some are fervent converts to their iPads, Kindles, and Sony Readers, and talk to the group as evangelicals whose lives have been changed forever by the conversion. During these conversations I am sometimes reminded of the character Syme in 1984: like him, they are adherents to the new order which will destroy them in the end. We have imagined racks of iPads for patrons to use in order to read newspapers when newsprint is gone. There is a movement out there to end copyright altogether. We are not sure and we do not know. In the end, we will be replaced by people for whom these questions will seem funny, quaint, and irrelevant, and scholars will assess the change for all of us as we pass into history.