“The Bookless Library” and “What Will Become of the Paper Book?”

Today, two bookmarks for the price of one.

“The Book Less Library”  by David A. Bell and  “What Will Become of the Paper Book?”  by Michael Agresta.

In his ruminative article, David Bell draws together the currently indigestible trends and events facing the library community:  the economic crisis and rising costs, the shift from print to digital, the improvement in technology’s reliability and functionality disintermediating libraries and the decline of foot traffic in libraries, the academic ones especially.

Bell’s is truly a well-contrived essay.  His survey builds to the presentation of a credible but nightmare scenario, whose credibility is enhanced by his carefully modulated tone up to that moment.

“The year is 2033 … the Third Great Recession has just struck. Although voters have finally turned the Tea Party out of office in Washington, the financial situation remains …. New York City in particular faces skyrocketing deficits as a result of the most recent Wall Street wipeout, and the bankruptcy of Goldman Chase.  In City Hall, a newly elected mayor casts a covetous glance at the grand main branch of the New York Public Library. Think how much money the city could save by selling it, along with the thirty remaining branch libraries scattered throughout the five boroughs. After strenuous negotiations, the mayor announces a deal with Googlezon, under which the company will make fifty electronic copies of any book in its database available at any one time to city residents, for two-week free rentals on the reading device of their choice. Two years later, where the main branch library once stood, the mayor proudly cuts the ribbon at the opening of the Bryant Park Mall.”

Bell deftly punctuates his scenario with the question:  “why should most libraries still own physical copies of out-of-copyright books—that is to say, for the most part, books printed before 1923”  — especially twenty to thirty years from now when the digital divide has narrowed and another born-digital generation dominating the Sprawl accesses its media digitally?

As Bell tolls it:  “The transformation is upon us.  … [and] Ultimately, to survive, libraries will need to become part of the new, partly digital public sphere, attentive to its needs and rhythms, as well as to those of traditional learning and scholarship. The balance will be hard to strike, things will be lost, and the lovers of traditional scholarship will continue to issue their laments. But if we do not try to strike the balance, and move libraries into the new age—well, I’ll meet you to discuss the question in a few years at the Bryant Park Mall.”

Over on “Slate,” in “What Will Become of the Paper Book?”,  Michael Agresta wanes where Bell waxes.  While, like Bell, he extols the extras that ebooks and apps are bringing, he warns that the paper book may well become a luxury item available only to the well off or be unrecognizably remediated and synthesized into book art.

His example:  German artist Dieter Roth’s “literaturwurst,” which presents the complete works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel — all 20 volumes — ground up and used as a substitute for meat in a recipe for homemade sausage.  

Well, perhaps Roth’s works will be displayed in the Bryant Park Mall, but let’s hope it is not near a deli.

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