The Doric Column

July 8, 1999

   The alphabet made us think in a different way,
   and so does the Internet. I believe they are the
   two prime developments in human history.

      -- James Burke, host of Connections

Library Journeys in the Era of E-Books
A Reader's Joy and a Scholar's Lament
This Library is Permanently Closed
Cheap Paper and Cheaper Bits

Library Journeys in the Era of E-Books

I visited two small libraries this summer. They have little in common except that they both represent journeys of sorts.

The first library is that of my uncle. He just built a small library off the north end of the 1890s southern Minnesota farmhouse where my mother's family grew up. Believe me, he will have no trouble stocking its shelves. He has been an inveterate bibliophile for most of this century.

Thirty years ago, on a visit to his apartment in Washington, D.C., I remember vividly that practically every room was lined with books. His apartment was just down the street from the Library of Congress. He introduced my brother and me to that temple of books. Its collection could not have been more dense per square foot than his.

My uncle is not a closet collector. He was trotting the globe long before the word "globalization" reared its ugly head, and books were always at the heart of his journeys. When I was in high school he sent me a Chinese grammar book, with no explanation what I was to do with it. Three decades later I still don't know.

My uncle's farm does not have a computer, at least not yet. My assistance has been solicited to investigate the possibility that the farm may have a computer in time. My uncle sees where the world is going, and how fast. "Is it too late for me?" he inquired a while back.

Last week he sent me a full-page ad that appeared in the Wall Street Journal  for IBM's new ThinkPad® 570 ultraportable notebook, the ad with a menacing big-toothed power saw blade sticking out from beneath the ThinkPad's keyboard.

Across the top of the ad my uncle wrote: "Should I buy this?"

The other small library is the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. The Bell Library is a collection of rare books, manuscripts, and maps that document the expansion of Europe from 1400 to 1800.

Bell was a University graduate and regent and founder of General Mills. He gave his collection to the University in 1953.

A few weeks ago I visited the library and held in my hands a book about Sir John Mandeville's travels, printed in Augsburg, Germany in 1481 by the great master Anton Sorg. Mandeville was the pen name of an unknown compiler of accounts of fantastic travels in the East in the 14th century, one of the first travel writers.

In brief, I held in my hand a book, with its red, hand-painted caps at the beginning of each chapter, its gothic type and slightly uneven spacing, that captured at once the "Age of Discovery" and the dawn of printing.

My uncle also sent me an article entitled "Books With No Pages" by Newsweek  writer Jennifer Tanaka (June 7, 1999).

I had already clipped a number of articles about the new electronic books, or e-books, from a variety of sources. After testing the SoftBook and the Rocket eBook, Tanaka writes: "I read my electronic books in a number of challenging situations: one-handed while standing in the subway; at a cafe table while subduing a messy croissant; in the dark, and even, gingerly, in the bathtub. The overall experience convinced me that electronic books are here to stay."

Lee More, writing in USA Today, reports her experience reading Alice in Wonderland  in the wee hours in the dark. For her, the Rocket eBook, if nothing else, "redefines reading in the dark: soft, low light, no pages to turn. But it also could redefine how we read, and buy, books."

Both reviewers were cool to their charge at the outset -- the notion that e-books could challenge the holistic experience of reading a real book. They also refer to the limited selection of digital books currently available, their cost, and the manner in which they are downloaded into the e-book -- typically by telephone line.

E-books are available for purchase in electronics stores, over the web, and in bookstores such as Barnes & Noble. But I have yet to read a description of what e-books would look like in a place where their analog print forebears have lived happily in close proximity to one another.

On library shelves.

A Reader's Joy and a Scholar's Lament

Over the noon hour recently I listened on the radio to a talk by writer Anna Quindlen, formerly a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times.

Her talk was sponsored by the Library Foundation of Hennepin County, part of the Foundation's "Pen Pals" lecture series. The focus of her remarks was her recent book, How Reading Changed My Life (Ballantine Books, 1998), one of the titles in the publisher's "Library of Contemporary Thought" series.

Quindlen's love of reading books knows no earthly bounds. The mere idea that e-books could serve as a substitute for real books, let alone replace them, is utterly unimaginable to her. She was quite clear about that in her remarks. It is an impossibility, certainly for anyone who "feels" books as well as reads them, as she clearly does. I know something about this feeling. I, too, have buried my nose in books for most of my life and have had some of my happiest moments in that pose.

But that printed books might someday be upstaged by electronic bits is not unimaginable to me. After all, the printed book itself was once something new, and its appearance was not without casualties.

The year James Ford Bell donated his rare books collection to the University was the same year Anna Quindlen entered the world and Pierce Butler left it, 1953.

Butler was the founder of the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago. He was the father of modern library science. That year he was killed in an automobile accident near the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he was a visiting professor. The dream he shared with his wife of running a mail-order book shop out of their summer home near Paw Paw, Michigan died with him.

Before the publication of his classic An Introduction to Library Science in 1933, Butler was curator of a typographical collection at Chicago's Newberry Library with its rich humanities collection. The experience served him well when he came to write The Origin of Printing in Europe, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1940.

Most of the handsome little book is devoted to typography and its technology, how early printing molds were made, how workers developed the skills to run a printing establishment, how the printing process was gradually refined, and an investigation of early masterpieces such as the Mainz Psalter of 1457, the "earliest printed book which contains a definite statement of its place, date, and printer."

But it is in the introductory chapters where Butler's combined humanistic and technological perspective helps the reader understand the cultural revolution wrought by mechanical printing. He asks rhetorically what would happen if we had to do without the printing press in the commercial arena?

"Under such circumstances the whole population of our country, working full time with pen, brush, and ruler, could not keep up with the present daily consumption of a single metropolis in job printing -- business and legal forms, catalogs, directories, tickets, programs, announcements, and advertisements -- much of it embellished with ornaments, diagrams, and pictures. Probably it is only by imagining the absence of such things from our lives that we can appreciate them at their true value."

Butler estimated that during the first fifty years of the press more than eight million books were printed, "probably far more than all Europe had produced throughout the medieval period." Under the manuscript economy, science and technology were slighted in favor of humanistic scholarship owing to the scribe's challenging task of accurately reproducing illustrations conveying scientific content. Thus it is no coincidence that the rise of printing and science, to say nothing of exploration, all occurred more or less concurrently.

To a writer and reader like Anna Quindlen, the printed books of the typographical culture unlock the imagination. They are pathways to other worlds, worlds that enrich our own. To a scholar like Butler, however, the ceaseless standardization and automation of printing in the "book production" enterprise does not come without a price.

At the dawn of the atomic age and the computer age, Butler wrote that "today we normally print every book in so many copies that, barring the inferiority of their paper, some of them are bound to survive through the centuries despite anything less than a cosmic catastrophe."

Much to his regret, however, the typographical culture has altered the character of scholarship and reduced the importance of the scholar. "Because the total content of scholarship has become so enormous by the cumulative effect of the printing press, no single individual can survey it the whole of it even superficially." The result is that the academic diploma "is no longer the certificate of a broad, well-balanced education."

When we celebrate the many benefits of the printing press, "we should not overlook the cruel price which it has extracted from our culture."

With the millions upon millions of new books, new papers, new reports, new discussions, new observations and statistics, no time is left to select, systematize, and appropriate what has already been accomplished, Butler wrote.

"Yet are we not certain that in every field of scholarship the things already well known are of more human moment and significance than will be next week's discovery?"

This Library is Permanently Closed

Butler died just as the structure of DNA was being discovered, the space program was still young and the transistor was just entering the marketplace. It is hard to know whether these or other developments over the past half century would cause him to revise his statement about the relative importance of "next week's discovery" in the larger scheme of things. Probably not.

He was an advocate of the "science" of librarianship early in his career. But according to John V. Richardson, Jr., author of The Gospel of Scholarship: Pierce Butler and a Critique of American Librarianship (The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992), by the end of it the humanist in him urged "a deeper, spiritual librarianship."

Today we have the Internet and the real prospect of digital libraries and archives. Noted Yale historian Johnathan Denton Spence warns that "though books may still be cherished, as we are constantly told, more and more are being shipped out of jammed libraries and stored in temperature-controlled environments to which readers are denied access, so that browsing becomes a thing of the past."

Speaking at a recent conference at the Library of Congress, Spence said library closings may grow as digital technology grows. He echoed the warning of Italian librarian Guido Biagi who predicted the decline of traditional libraries with the rise of electricity, the telephone and mass transportation in 1904.

Four years ago William Wulf published an article in Issues in Science and Technology in which he argued that the Internet will be as great a boon to the humanities as to the sciences. Wulf is AT&T Professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia and President of the National Academy of Engineering. He was also involved in establishing the University's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, which seeks to "explore and expand the potential of information technology as a tool for humanities research."

In his article, Wulf wrote: "If we project far enough into the future, it's not clear whether there is a distinction between the library and the book. The 'technology' of the bibliographic citation pales by comparison to the hypertextual link - to the ability to gain immediate access to the full referenced source, and hence to browse through the context of the reference. It will take a long time to build the web, and especially to incorporate the paper legacy, but the value of a seamless mesh will doom the discrete, isolated volume."

That was four years ago. Three years ago, during the reengineering of the University's Academic Health Center, where I work, and the accompanying debate over tenure, Wulf wrote to me: "I had the pleasure of attending an IOM [Institute of Medicine] retreat to talk about the future of academic health centers -- a topic about which I know NOTHING -- and found it fascinating to see some of the same problems that universities have, some new, some disguised. Sure are 'interesting times,' aren't they?"

They are indeed.

Cheap Paper and Cheaper Bits

Universities were a catalyzing force behind the invention of movable type in Western Europe. That's the view of Colin Clair in his book A History of European Printing (Academic Press, 1976).

These crucibles of intellectual activity "inevitably led to an increasing demand for books." Study at Montpellier, Toulouse, Padua, Bologna, and Paris in those days "was almost entirely book study," and even the organized system of supplying students with manuscript texts for the subjects in the scholastic curriculum couldn't keep up with the demand.

The arrival of cheap paper was the key. As one scholar put it in Clair's book, "Paper production could be increased rapidly; the production of calves [for vellum] could not." Once cheap paper became available, new and improved technology to use it followed, beginning in Mainz, Germany, home of Johann Gutenberg.

A couple weeks ago research librarians from the U.S., Canada, and Europe gathered in New York City to discuss the libraries of the future and how to deal with the digital onslaught--that is, the consequence of public computer networks and bits cheaper than paper--and ever-changing hardware and software. ["Library Conference Examines Preservation of Digital Works," New York Times, June 5, 1999] In light of the "sheer quantity of information being created today," the challenge is to know what to keep and what not to keep. "And will those choices be cursed by scholars 100 years from now?"

If you read Pierce Butler as I do, information glut has been with us for a long time, beginning with Gutenberg. In that context, the remark by Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, that the choices made now are "of enormous consequence to us as a civilization" might be taking it a bit far.

It was reported that the assembled librarians "also heard a plea that in their zeal to manage electronic resources, they do not dismiss paper." Did the librarians express the same concerns as printing replaced manuscript technology? Butler did, expost facto.

The printer helped to create the market. He moved swiftly beyond the confines of universities and "ransacked old libraries for whatever books he thought the public might buy if they were made available. To the same purpose he also printed new writings brought to him by living authors, and finally he came to order on his own initiative journalistic accounts of recent happenings," Butler wrote.

"In response to his enterprise the world learned to read books and not merely to study them." Publishing was born.

A birth never leaves the world exactly the same. The birth of publishing was a boon to the reader, a burden to the scholar, and a curse to the manuscript scribe whose works were relegated to the back room and eventually rescued from the consequences of time, neglect and warfare by the likes of the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, where my children learned a little medieval bookmaking last fall.

What the birth of the Internet means for the library and the book is still taking shape. But on the general theme of the power of science and technology to shape history, I ally myself with David McCullough, historian, author and host of the PBS program "The American Experience."

Also speaking at the Library Foundation of Hennepin County recently, McCullough described the art of letter writing as practiced by John Adams, our second president. There was Adams, exercising his goose quill on rag paper, paper as good today as when it was inscribed two centuries ago.

Elegant, handwritten letters on permanent paper set against e-mail and evanescent pixels on an electronic screen.

McCullough concedes that the full measure of the remarkable changes enveloping us is beyond our comprehension. That measure will be the task of future historians to take.

    --William Hoffman

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are the writer's own.

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The Doric Column



A portrayal of adventurer Marco Polo superimposed on an e-book. The illustration was printed in the German edition of his Travels, published in 1477. James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.