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The library and the book in the digital age

I've noticed that when people give talks, they try to open with a joke to reassure everybody that they're not going to be dry or boring, though they usually are.

OK. There was a joke in my family that went like this. It's not actually a funny joke, or maybe it would be if you knew my family. For their anniversary, a couple receive a book from their friends. "Why'd they give us a book?" the man asks his wife. "We've got a book."

My father left school in Grade 8. My mother graduated from Grade 10. My father's father was a gravedigger. He refused to learn how to read on principle. The principle was that a man should not talk about anything he hasn't actually done himself. Evidently, reading for my grandfather did not come under the category of doing. To him, the phrase working at a desk made no sense unless you were a carpenter. My grandfather didn't talk much, except to tell stories, which were always about work. My father told stories too, and read, and as a town councillor wrote speeches and a column in the local paper. Toward the end of his life he wrote his memoirs. My mother writes comic, occasional poems. Just now she's on p. 115 of her memoirs. Single-spaced. There were books in our house, and they were read and to an extent revered, but reading and writing were always a secondary means to the discovery and dissemination of stories. The primary was oral.

There was always a suspicion of books as potentially like toaster ovens. How many do you really need? If the content of a book is of no value to you, then one is more than enough. Lots of families of course had only one book, and maybe many still do: the Bible.

I've been asked to say something about the role of ‘traditional' literacy in the digital world. I'm taking traditional literacy to mean the reading and writing of books. I'm speaking not as an expert in either literacy or the digital world but as a writer, English professor, lifelong frequenter of libraries, and as someone whose grandfather refused, on principle, to learn how to read.

What I think is five things:

1) The reading and writing of books is not under any greater threat today than it was 20, 100, 200, or 300 years ago.

2) Digitalization will no more mark the end of reading and writing than it has marked the end of the use of paper.

3) As a technology, the book can easily withstand the computer.

4) Libraries will last because people will continue to need sanctuaries where they can find and read books.

5) Librarians will last because somebody has to decide what books to keep in the libraries and once they've been kept, to help people to find them.

 

I'd like to take these points one at a time.

1) The reading and writing of books is not under any greater threat today than it was 20, 100, 200, or 300 years ago.

Perhaps the most common and annoying mental affliction of even the more intelligent human beings is the assumption that things used to be better. Memory is selective, culture priorizes past successes, we naturally fear the unknown, and argument picks and chooses, so it's not too hard to fall into assuming a Golden Age of the Book. I personally can't imagine when this could have been. For Britain and North America, most of us will probably think of the nineteenth century—all those fat Victorian novels, Andrew Carnegie creating his nearly 3000 lending libraries—but just think how many more books are sold and read today, and how many more libraries.

And here's Dr. Johnson writing in the second issue of his magazine The Rambler in 1749:

"He that endeavours after fame by writing, solicits the regard of a multitude fluctuating in pleasures, or immersed in business, without time for intellectual amusements; he appeals to judges prepossessed by passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which preclude their approbation of any new performance. Some are too indolent to read anything, till its reputation is established; others too envious to promote that fame, which gives them pain by its increase. What is new is opposed, because most are unwilling to be taught; and what is known is rejected, because it is not sufficiently considered, that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed."

This sounds pretty familiar to me. Change the language a little, and it could be something any writer would say about readers today. Human nature just doesn't change that fast. And the book as a readily reproducible commodity has been around only a little more than 500 years. A mere seven human lifetimes.

 

I know I haven't really said enough yet to fully make my point, but instead of wondering if I ever could, I'll move on to my second point:

2) Digitalization will no more mark the end of reading and writing than it has marked the end of the use of paper.

The subtext here of course is that it will increase the prevalence of reading and writing. The other side of the nostalgia coin is a negative attitude toward the present day. We bemoan the so-called illiteracy of email and the chatrooms but fail to celebrate the fact that people of all ages from all over the world are actually writing to each other. This writing necessitates reading. I think the phenomenon is extraordinary. I think it's wonderful. The media focus on the use of the Internet to lure minors, but that's just how the news works. Look at the explosion of international, personal communication in writing.

Like everybody I'm sometimes shocked by the casual grammar and spelling of emails, and on the few occasions I've found myself in chatrooms I've witnessed uses of English that absolutely astonish me. And I'm not talking about obscenity but simply about very strange uses of the English language. But when a culture or technology creates new dimensions into which language flows, why should we be surprised when the form the language takes on there is new? All languages are constantly in flux, and the more they're used and the more people there are who use them, the more they change. All languages are highly sensitive to context. Change the context, you change the language. Email messages I receive are more likely to begin Hi Greg than Dear Greg. Is this a tiny, universal blow against traditional literacy? I don't think so. It's language conventions adjusting to a new medium.

If anything, I would say that traditional literacy, certainly in the form I work in as a story writer—literary language—is scrambling to keep up to the energy that the Internet has unleashed in the English language. It's not, from my point of view, a matter of needing to defend traditional or literary language from the corruption of the Internet but of writers and publishers finding ways to tap into the energy of that language. Last August I had a conversation with my publisher, David Kent at HarperCollins Canada, who told me how hard they're searching for blog material that can be put between covers and sold. This makes sense to me. It's like a novelist such as Martin Amis going to the street—or claiming he goes to the street—for his material. Good writing, like publishing, is always hungry for new permutations. In the same way that Canadian literature has drawn new energy from immigrant voices, world literature will draw new energy from the linguistic innovations brought about by digital technologies.

Also, of course, there is the fact that with more people used to onscreen messages; brief, selective printouts, and plenty of visual imagery in conjunction with texts, their perception of books and the written word is shifting and changing. I just think books and the written word can not only take these shifts and changes but will thrive on them.

So I would say the digital age means not only more reading and writing but new life not only for the language of literature but for print culture more generally.

 

3) As a technology, the book can easily withstand the computer.

The great technological advantage of the book is its portability. You can take a book anywhere, and anywhere there's light you can read it. You don't need to plug it in. A book is—relative to pixels on a screen—easy on the eyes. The turning of the pages is the physical—interactive, tactile, regular—observance of your progression through the text. A book is perfect for putting down and picking up again. You can mark the pages, you can reenter that world at your own pace, whim, discretion.

If we're talking about novels, the prognosis is even better. The novel is the one and only cultural form that offers immersion in a story over a period of days, weeks, or even months; convenience of portability; and complete ease and choice of access, departure, and re-entry. The same can be said, to a degree, about any sustained piece of writing, but a good novel, with its engaging characters, inviting setting, compelling story, and usually relatively prosaic, personal—social, psychological—concerns, occupies a unique cultural niche. It's a literary form that seems designed to fit the strengths of the very technology—the book—that serves as its medium.

Maybe one day every family—or family member—will have only one "book," a blank-paged digital storage device, on whose pages when it's plugged in, words will digitally appear, and when it's been read, the pages will go blank again, ready for another text to be downloaded. Maybe it won't need to be plugged in while you're reading it; maybe it'll run on a battery, which will recharge at the same time as the next text is loaded. Or maybe the turning of the pages itself will keep the battery charged. Maybe the pages will even feel like paper, for that tactile sense and that sense of getting somewhere, and maybe the digital words won't be hard on the eyes. It'll still be a book, just one even more technologically allied with digital culture.

The likeliest next development will be a device at the 7-Eleven that downloads, prints, and binds books on demand in five minutes. Direct from the publisher's terminal to the purchaser, with no bookstore between to send unsold copies back for pulping. Notice that this will still be a book. Printed instantly on paper or some plastic like it. more readily available than ever.

 

4) Libraries will last because people will continue to need sanctuaries where they can find and read books.

To date, with the exception of powerful concordances to a wide range of significant authors, reference works, and libraries, the Internet is a vast array of dubious, rather fragmented information. If you really want to delve into a subject, a necessary place to go remains the library. The library has range and depth of information, as well as better opportunities for determining the authority of your sources. Quality control will come to the Internet, but so will books continue to be published

And then there's the library as a cultural space in itself: a repository—and generator—of memory.

And now I'm thinking about the libraries I've used in my life and what important places they've been to me.

The first was the Woodbridge Public Library in Woodbridge, Ontario, which, for some reason I remember as running along the east wall of the Woodbridge Police Station. It was one aisle, floor to ceiling with books both sides. I might be wrong about this, but it seems to me that once you'd chosen your books, you passed out by the police desk. I remember the bulldog head of Bunny Baird, the librarian at my high school in Toronto, swivelling behind his desk to lock on me. "Put a sock in it, Hollingshead."

I remember sleeping in the carrels at Victoria College, U of T, drooling on books. I slept a lot in those carrels. When you're up all night, reading makes you very sleepy. I remember the smell of the stacks at the U of T, which is the same smell as the stacks at the U of London and at Yale and at Harvard and at McGill and in Rutherford South, a smell of cardboard, mold, leather, dust, desire, iron, and sleep.

A graduate student of mine, who met his wife playing a strategy game on the Internet, argues that you can get to know people better and faster—i.e., more accurately, sooner—on the Internet than in person. Is this true? I would say perhaps you can get to know certain features of their mind sooner. But how they would be as a friend or a mate? I don't know about that. I do know that libraries are great places to meet—and watch—interesting people.

I remember deciding to do my graduate work at the University of London because I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do more than spend the next five years under the gold and white dome of the British Library. Those five years in the British Library were good years. The British Library was, and still is, a small town, inhabited by remarkable people from all over the world, coming and going every day. I remember the desk where Marx used to work. The desk where Eric Partridge used to work. I remember sitting next to Terry Jones when he was doing research for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. After I finished my thesis, I worked as a researcher on Coleridge for Kathleen Coburn in the British Library. I remember the famous white-haired hack who'd take young women new to the Library to tea and offer to whip them. I remember sitting beside Germaine Greer the day she was approached by him with an invitation to tea and she replied, "Oh, go away, you dirty old man." I remember the woman who used to borrow books of Catholic doctrine and spit in them. I remember the tiny mad lady with the Coke-bottle-lens glasses and the make-up so heavy and pink she looked like a demented child, who used to use take off her belt and use the holes to measure the pages. I remember the winter she didn't come in for three days, and the librarians going round to her flat to make sure she was OK. I remember the Low Mumbler in his filthy mac. I remember the day somebody tore up a week of my notes and left them in a neat pile on my shelf.

He who is tired of the British Library is tired of life.

I remember when it came time to return to Canada and look for an academic job, being very tempted by an ad for a position as a librarian at the local library, the Oxted Public Library, in Surrey, England.

I remember the Westmount Public Library in Montreal on ice-fogged winter days; the American Library in Paris, where you meet every variety of American ex-pat; the Bodleian Library at Oxford, now over 400 years old; the Library of Congress in Washington, a sea of green leather; the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, under the California sun; the Toronto Public Library on St. George before it became the University of Toronto Bookroom; galoshes and melting snow in the Edmonton Public Library; the silo-like deep silence of the Robarts Rare Books Room at the U of T; the Wellcome Medical Library in London—now there's a Rolls Royce of libraries: few readers, large comfortable chairs and tables, good light, open shelves. I remember the wonderful new British Library, now on Euston Road, with its sublime architectural grace notes; the Widener Library at Harvard, the Yale University

Library . . .

Libraries: Temporary homes. Shelters from the storm. Places to lose yourself in a book. Preparation grounds for future struggle and debate. Public stables for the mind, with stacks for feed-troughs. Communities of living readers. Human life happens in libraries in a way that it doesn't on the street, at home, in the classroom, or on the Internet. I don't see the demand for such hallowed cultural space diminishing at all. I see it increasing as the world continues to implode.

 

5) Librarians will last because somebody has to decide what books to keep in the libraries and once they've been kept, to help people find them.

Librarians are guardians of the sanctuary that is the library. I remember once trying to research the subject of high tension power lines and cancer in the Ontario Hydro Library on University Avenue in Toronto and discovering that not all libraries and librarians are fair and disinterested disseminators of knowledge.

("Look, I'm just trying to find out what's known because I'm buying a property near a Hydro right of way."

"So you say.")

They refused to believe I wasn't a journalist.

In the card catalogue, the titles were heavily annotated in red ink, enthusiastically when they decried any health risk, with extreme prejudice when they warned there could be. What a shock that was. Biassed librarians in a biassed library. It was like uncovering a nest of crooked referees or fallen angels.

Librarians are truth-keepers, not liars. They have the authority of how-to knowledge and also of the necessary process of selection by which the library holds the particular books it does.

These are evident facts, of course, to librarians, who, whether male or female, must feel a lot of the time like nursemaids to the bewildered. But people succumb to roles, don't they, and nobody's very good with too much new, strange information all at once, especially when it's organized in what at first appear mysterious ways.

I've had my share of impatient librarians, not when I've been slow to find something on my own or slow to understand what they're telling me, but when they realize I've not so much disregarded their advice as followed it, yes, but also done what they've advised against as a waste of time. But the thing is, I've spent enough time in libraries to know the importance of serendipity: you follow whims and hunches, against all reason, and that's how you find unexpected things. Libraries are places for wandering. You don't just go to the shelf, but when you do go to the shelf it's a good idea to take a look at what's in the general vicinity. Same with the computer catalogue. Like Google, those keyword searches can turn up some interesting items, if you take time to play a little.

Mostly I'm struck by the patience of librarians, patience both with the customer and with the search. They try all kinds of different strategies. They're like my son at the computer. They're not cowed by the system. They know too well how easy it is for things to fall between the cracks. They persevere.

As for librarians and books, I sometimes think, like postal workers and the mail, they can seem a little case-hardened. Too many books, constantly arriving. I've passed behind the Edmonton Public Library and seen dumpsters filled with books, and it breaks my heart. To a writer and a reader, the destruction of a book is a little murder. When I said this to my editor she said, "Then stay away from our warehouse. It's a regular slaughterhouse."

 

So we're back where we started, with the book as a commodity of a certain value—or not—to the consumer. And here's what I'm saying. In his masterpiece The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, a victim of Stalinist censorship says, "Manuscripts don't burn." I'm taking that to mean that neither can books be destroyed. Not by fire, not by censorship, and certainly not by computers. Not as long as human beings aspire to a permanent physical record of their reality. And those books are going to need libraries, and those libraries are going to need librarians. So there you go.