In the early 1990s my city erected a stunning new addition to our central downtown library, an architectural gem that more than doubled its shelf capacity. This expansion was made necessary not only by increased patronage but also by the explosion of publications brought about by the information age. What the city and the architect may not have fully anticipated then was the extent to which the newly evolving internet would revolutionize books. No sooner had this state of the art library been inaugurated than ominous changes began to occur.
I grimaced when the old, highly flexible manual card catalogue disappeared, replaced by sterile (and frequently temperamental) computer terminals. That was only the opening salvo however. Shortly thereafter digital screens began popping up in every nook and cranny of the new facility. Inevitably, an impressive collection of reference materials and documents occupying the entire fourth floor was soon swept away replaced by a monolithic computer lab dedicated to the internet. Watching several generations worth of accumulated government documents, studies, and statistics evaporate over night, I knew it was only a matter of time before the main library collection, consisting of histories, scientific and technical works, travelogues, and literature would come under the cross-hairs of zealous, newly converted “digital librarians.”
My worst fears were realized recently when I went to the third floor to research some regional geology. I was stunned to walk through row after row of stacks formerly filled with treatises on every conceivable subject now utterly decimated. Fully 60% to 80% of the painfully assembled collection was gone! Was the head librarian financing more new keyboards on the fourth floor by selling off the library collection? I suppose that most of those books, many of which were older editions, might be considered superfluous in the electronic age. Admittedly there was much dated material lining those shelves but culling such a large percentage of the titles certainly entailed the risk of sweeping away a good deal of the cultural record. Now approximately 90% of the shelf-space sits starkly vacant. So what gain, apart from lightening floor loads, has there been? Where we used to have books, there are now cross ventilated aisles instead.
What does this all signify? There certainly has been a profound shift in our information culture over the past 25 years which no sane person will deny. The question is whether that shift is for the better, or the worse. Books, like art, are certainly representative of a culture’s values, both good and bad, over a long period of time. And that seems to me to be something worth preserving for future generations. Furthermore, I wholeheartedly reject the argument that any electronic hand held device can ever replace the value of a good book.
Books, in fact, still have several advantages over electronic tablets, smart phones, or even a Kindle. One advantage is that of ownership. A book can be easily accessed at any time and it does not require an internal power source or external links to operate. Simply open to the page you want. Books also provide the kind of privacy that electronic devices do not. Reading a printed page leaves no electronic signature or record on some remote server that can later provide user data to Google, the FBI, the NSA, or any proficient hacker. But most importantly a book does not require dependency upon some anonymous “provider” in order to be studied.
To me this last point is the most compelling argument against allowing one’s self to become overly dependent upon electronic devices for the sort of information that can be just as easily obtained in print. The fact that the people subscribing to new digital technologies are increasingly conditioned to rely exclusively on electronic devices in every aspect of life is creating a new kind of dependency. Pay for that hamburger with a smart-phone instead of cash. Text message your kids instead of talking to them. Post those comments and photos on social media that may get you fired, or ostracized, or even tracked by a stalker. Electronic devices have certainly broadened our field of social interaction while at the same time trivializing the message and opening up one to unwanted attentions. Now everybody can have an audience even if they have nothing to say.
The beauty of print is that it provides a kind of built-in filtering device. Ideas tend to be screened before they get published. That does not mean that there aren’t a lot of bad and mediocre books, but at least there is a modicum of vetting before a printed article winds up in your local bookstore. No such safeguard, however cursory, prevents the posting of absolute drivel, misinformation, seditious libel, or any other trash that some crackpot decides to advertise online.
This is especially dangerous for children who have no way to discern the value or truth of whatever they happen to stumble across while browsing the internet. That brings us to the point of education. Even as the local library struggles desperately to reconcile its mission with a digital age of information, cyber billionaires such as Bill Gates have been busy lobbying and even funding the local school district to provide more digital interface. The goal seems to be saturating young minds, from kindergarten onward, to join their brave new world where information itself flows from a digital monopoly (which of course greatly benefits companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and HP).
The campaigning has been so successful that some schools now no longer require elementary students to learn the rudiments of cursive writing. Instead, proficiency on a keyboard is considered to be the first task of education. How long will it be until we have an entire generation of youngsters completely unfamiliar with books and the written language? Digital literacy is quickly replacing cultural and grammatical literacy which means that books will have no value whatever to those so pre-conditioned. What a sly way to insure a future citizenry who are completely dependent upon their “providers” for every ounce of information they require.
A gang of Silicon Valley Pied Pipers are lulling the new generations into a kind of “virtual” existence where reality is determined by strokes on a keyboard. Ease and convenience will gradually become substitutes for doing and responsibility. Attending to the demands of such all-encompassing digital technology seems to be crowding out the art of living for millions who become addicted to electronic devices. But once we have thrown away the old templates entirely, what defense will humanity have against whatever policies the new providers decide to impose, or for that matter how much they charge for their services?
This is not some horror scenario from George Orwell’s 1984. It is a future that we may be unwittingly foisting upon our hapless descendants. Without real books, can there be any independence of thought? There may well evolve a type of censorship unimagined in the days of print media. Sooner or later governments will find a need to tightly regulate and control the internet, no doubt for security reasons. When that happens, the “free” open source providers of today will be forced to control not only the flow of information, but even control to whom it may, or may not, be disseminated. While rogue governments have been known to ban or even burn objectionable books, they cannot so easily control who actually gets hold of and reads such materials. In a world completely dependent upon electronic sources, both operations will be incredibly simple.
But more discomforting is that people are losing the sense of doing things for themselves as we become ever more and more dependent upon “providers” to do the things for us. Virtual experiences are gradually taking the places of actually “smelling the daisies” for a whole upcoming generation. For example, consider how digital devices have all but replaced musical instruments in the typical American home. Even music is now “stream fed” into a set of headphones by some outside provider rather than being something we make for our own enjoyment. Have we lost that delicate balance between “doing” and merely “ingesting?” We download apps on headsets and watch U-Tube videos. The considerable traffic entering our brain-stems is quickly becoming entirely inbound, and one-way, traffic with nary a clue as to where or with whom all that noise and traffic originates. To co-opt a great line from a famous movie, we simply, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
So first they take away our books from the libraries, and next they take away our ability to think for ourselves. Meanwhile, desperate for relevancy in the midst of a technological revolution, the neighborhood library is losing its familiar identity as a repository of culture. It now strains to function as hybrid media lounge / recreation center; sweeping its books off the shelf to make way for teen lounges, play stations, and casual chat areas. In retrospect, the traditional public library is morphing into a rather noisy playground for semi-literates. Call me a snob, like some reincarnate William F. Buckley, Jr., but is there really anything wrong with leisurely thumbing through a real book in some cozy, quiet and comfortable corner in a halfway studious environment?
It is fascinating to observe the process of highly developed cultures slowly strangulating themselves even as they bask in material prosperity. Apart from the obvious examples of ancient Athens and Rome the more recent Spanish Hapsburg Empire, Bourbon France, and Turkish Ottoman Empire have all trodden the same path. The decline and eventual destruction of the world’s greatest ancient library at Alexandria was likewise decimated by the book thieves of the ancient world. Its demise precluded many centuries of darkness and barbarism. The question for our distracted populace today is, “Will we learn from their hard experience, or simply repeat it?”
Francis J. Pierson