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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Journey's End

THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK

SOMEWHAT AKIN to the startling announcement and rebarbative debates on the death of God some thirty years ago, there has been much discussion of late on the demise of the book. The book as we know it has been in the same format, the codex, for nearly two millennia. The recent discovery in Egypt of a Psalter dating to the fourth century now has given us evidence of perhaps the earliest book extant. [1] The series of transitions from clay to organic materials (such as papyrus and parchment), from scroll to codex, and from script to print in about 1455, all have had an impact on how information is gathered, stored, and made available. In many of these transitions, the technology has moved faster than society was prepared to accept the change.

The first printed book in the western world was Gutenberg's Mainz edition of the Bible in about 1455. The first journals were The Transactions of the Royal Society and the Journal des Savants, both dating from 1665. Since those times, the technology of printing has moved from setting type by hand to mechanical typesetting and now to computer-aided typesetting. In each case, there was a period of transition that was sometimes chaotic and often met with discussion, debate, and fear.

It is not surprising, then, to encounter this debate on the future of the book in the scholarly world, both in printed and electronic form. To be sure, there has been a great deal of discussion in the media, much of which is ill-informed and wrapped in hyperbole. The media often give the impression that the book as a mode of communication is breathing its last and that all publishing-in journal or monographic form-will be done electronically in the next year or so. It is most unfortunate that the media are suggesting that this will occur immediately. Although it may well occur, it will not be in such a radical manner. Rather, there will be a long period of transition, comparable, perhaps, to the transition from script to print that began about 1455 and continued well into the seventeenth century. [2]

The debate is not simply academic, for it will have a significant impact on education, on research, and on libraries in the future. Thus, it becomes singularly important that the debate be focused on the reality of this transition rather than on the exaggeration often encountered in the media. In the past several years, a number of books and essays have been published that treat the subject (dis)passionately. Being Digital, the work of Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab, is an important and thoughtful essay on the transition to electronic means of scholarly communication. [3] The author presents an insightful and honest look at where we are and where we may be going in this transition period. When chided about publishing such a work in print form rather than electronically, his characteristic response was, 'Because that is the display medium my audience has today. And it is not a bad one.'[4]

An entirely different view is taken by Sven Birkerts, who is concerned primarily with the impact of the electronic media on reading and learning. [5] His monograph is important reading for this very reason. He, too, has commented on the future of the book in an essay aimed at the scholarly community. In this essay, he notes that the speed with which professional papers could be disseminated in electronic format would be beneficial and continues by suggesting that a scholarly study is never finished, that an electronic version of the study would simply aid in the growth and maturation of the ideas contained in it. [6] One critical statement in his essay that bears further discussion centers on the impact of print versus electronic format. 'The printed page implies posterity in a way that a screen full of words or even a downloaded hard copy never can.'[7]

Scholarly publishing, often seen as a very conservative element in the publishing community, is moving carefully through this period of transition. In a series of essays published this year, the contributors examine a variety of issues relating to scholarly publishing. [8] Robin Peek, one of the editors of the volume, notes that 'It is easy to become seduced into believing that technology is the fix for the ills of scholarly publishing.' Ann Okerson, in the same volume, presents a digest of the Association of Research Libraries study prepared for the Mellon Foundation on academic libraries and scholarly communication. Noting that the academic library has been the 'indispensible mediator' between reader and writer for a period longer that the printed book has existed, Okerson suggests that libraries will remain the hub of information on campuses in the foreseeable future. At the same time, she notes that the technology of how information is delivered by libraries is changing and will continue to evolve. [9]

It is clear that the technologies now at hand and those that will be created in the future will have an important effect on the book and the organizations that attend it. Dartmouth has the advantage of having been involved in the development and evolution of these technologies for many years. President Kemeny, in a speech at MIT in 1961, proposed an electronic library, and reiterated that proposal in his important collection of essays on Man and the Computer a decade later. [10] Mr. Kemeny was one of the earliest visionaries of the future of the book and the library.

Dartmouth's move to a library system that will meet the research and curricular needs of the Dartmouth community in the next century has been evolving for over fifteen years and will continue to evolve as the information needs of the community grow and change. Some changes are beyond the control of the Library. Government documents, for example, have been a major resource for many academic disciplines, and Dartmouth has been a government depository library for over a hundred years. The Superintendent of Documents has recently announced that nearly all government documents will be provided only in electronic form by the end of this century. Thus, how we handle these materials and how we provide access to them will, of necessity, need to evolve with the proposed federal changes.

One exciting aspect of the evolving library scene is the use of electronic databases to provide both bibliographic access and full-text access to serial publications. Many of the bibliographies and indexes that were available only in printed form a few years ago can now be accessed electronically through the Library's catalog. This access is not only more immediate, but is also more complete. Another new trend is to provide serials and journals in electronic form in addition to, or in place of, paper copies. While this trend has received much attention by the media, it should be noted that very few journals are now in electronic form. The sciences, technology, and medicine are disciplines where speed of communication and the need to publish results immediately are vital. A review of Science Citation Index and Index Medicus, the two major indexes for these disciplines, reveals that only 0.2% of science, technical, and medical journals are now available in electronic form. Thus, the attention given by the media is not in proportion to the reality of publication.

Equally unreported in the media is the phenomenon, at least at Dartmouth, of the increase in use of libraries as we progress more deeply into the information age. Rather than a decrease in use of the collections, in the number of queries handled by reference staff, and in the number of students and other researchers in the facilities, there is a growing and identifiable trend toward more library use. Many of the queries and research projects cross the boundaries of traditional disciplines and many of the queries are much more complex, but the fact remains that more and more use is being made of the libraries at Dartmouth.

The paramount requirement for any academic library is not to shun new electronic tools in favor of printed materials or to ignore printed materials in favor of the new wave of electronic information, but to identify and make accessible those materials in whatever format that are necessary for the research and curricular needs of the institution now and in the future. This is what the libraries at Dartmouth have been doing for over two hundred years and will contine to do in the future.

P. N. C.


[1] Alan Crowell, 'Grave Yields Psalms: World's Oldest?' New York Times, 24 December 1993, 11.

[2] See, for example, the excellent study by Harold Love, Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), for a summary of the long transition from script to print in England and the continued use of scribal copying some two hundred years after the development of printing.

[3] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Knopf, 1995).

[4] Nicholas Negroponte, 'The Future of the Book,' Wired 4.02 (February 1996), 188. [5] Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Winchester, Mass.: Faber and Faber, 1994)

[6] Sven Birkirts, 'The Book as Emblem: The Besieged Stronghold?' Journal of Scholarly Publishing 26:1 (October 1994), 3-4.

[7] Birkirts, 'Book as Emblem,' 5. An interesting view of the future of the book can be gained from an essay by Charles Meadow, an emeritus member of the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto, 'On the Future of the Book, or Does It Have a Future?' Journal of Scholarly Publishing 26:4 (July 1995), 187-196.

[8] Robin P. Peek, 'Scholarly Publishing, Facing the New Frontiers,' in Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier, ed. by Robin Peek and Gregory B. Newby (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 14.

[9] Ann Okerson, 'University Libraries and Scholarly Communication,' in Scholarly Publishing, ed. Peek and Newby, 199, 181. The full text of Okerson's report for the Mellon Foundation can be found on the World Wide Web using the URL . It is interesting to note that many of the footnote references in this publication on scholarly publishing are to gopher sites and URLs on the web. Readers interested in the future of libraries in this new information age may want to read the essays in Future Libraries, ed. R. Howard Bloch and Carla Hesse, Representation Books, 7 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). These essays were first published in the journal Representations 42 (Spring 1993).

[10] 'A Library for 2000 AD,' in Management and the Computer of the Future, ed. Martin Greenberger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1962), 134-178; and 'Library of the Future,' in Man and the Computer (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972) 85-98. The latter essay was first published in the Dartmouth College Library Bulletin n.s. 12:2 (April 1972), 50-60.

Last Updated: 5/3/12