[joho] JOHO - November 19, 2007

  • From: "David Weinberger" <dweinberger@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 19 Nov 2007 13:52:27 -0500

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November 19, 2007

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The future of book
Anthony Grafton's New Yorker article on why libraries will always be with us
shows the blinding power of book nostalgia.

What we owe <http://www.hyperorg.com/backissues/joho-nov19-07.html#owe>: We
need to fight to let the Internet we love be a settled part of our
children's lives.

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[image: dividing line]
The future of book nostalgia 1

Anthony Grafton's article in the November 5 New Yorker, Future
intends to challenge the "infotopian" hyper-enthusiasm about online
libraries. While Grafton acknowledges that "it's hard to exaggerate what is
already becoming possible month by month and what will become possible in
the next few years," he argues that the future will be continuous with the
present as "the narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms
where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in
millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books."

Baloney. Yes, libraries will exist, and they'll still smell of varnish and
mold, and some of us will continue to make important use of them. But
Grafton seriously underestimates the existing and coming discontinuity. In
fact, Grafton is so insistent on defending libraries that he lets his
nostalgia overcome his logic.

His underestimation extends in both temporal directions.

Looking back, he treats the creation of concordances and indexes as
essentially the same as what's going on digitally. For example, he
paraphrases James O'Donnell's recent description of Eusebius' 3rd century
Gospel cross-references as "the world's first set of hot links." This makes
a point that doesn't really need making: Find me the infotopian who says
that cross-referencing began with the invention of the digital hyperlink.
Further, it understates the difference between a paper-based list of
cross-references compiled by a scholar and a worldwide web of hyperlinks
created by hundreds of millions of scholars, authors and readers. Grafton
might as well say that electronic playlists are nothing new because LPs
always listed their contents on their back covers.

Looking forward, Grafton argues for the inevitability of paper-based
libraries to gain "deeper, more local knowledge." His language in his final
paragraph leaves no uncertainty: To get past what your laptop can tell you
as you sit "in your local coffee shop" — trivializing imagery — you "must"
go to the library, for "only the library" can show you the "irreplaceable"
paper-based works where "knowledge is embodied."

And his evidence for this? He repeats Paul Duguid's story from The Social
Life of 
an historian sniffing 250-year-old letters for traces of vinegar,
which indicate the letters were sent from a town struck by cholera. He
points to what we can learn from bindings and marginal annotations by
"original writers and thinkers" (he names Martin Luther, John Adams and
Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and by "forgotten" people writing in their books.
"If you want to capture how a book was packaged and what it has meant to the
readers who have unwrapped it, you have to look at all the copies you can
find, from original manuscripts to cheap reprints."

No doubt. But how many of us were doing that before the digital age? How
many of us were tracking down every copy we could find of an historic book?
Even scholars of, say, Leibniz don't actually travel the world's libraries
finding every copy of every edition of Leibniz's works. Grafton is thus
pointing to the needs of a tiny fraction of scholars to support his case for
the broad necessity of libraries. We want those dedicated, specialized
scholars to have access to the works they need, but that is hardly the path
the rest of us take when we want more knowledge. Generally we put another
quarter into the wifi, order another latte, and click on some more links.

The library Anthony Grafton celebrates is mustier than ever, for, if his
view of the value of libraries is correct, even fewer people will be
disturbing its dust.

Grafton tips his hat at the possibility of radical change, and he certainly
acknowledges the power of what's been done digitally so far. But, he says
that "For now and for the foreseeable future" we will need both the digital
and the physical. He seems to mean the next decade or two. This he finds

Grafton shouldn't get too comfortable. He might well be right about the next
couple of decades, but, I think he misses three ways in which the future he
sees could be disrupted rather rapidly.

First, he writes:

Though the distant past will be more available, in a technical sense, than
ever before, once it is captured and preserved as a vast, disjointed mosaic
it may recede ever more rapidly from our collective attention.

Having huge collections available to everyone online would seem to make the
distant past more present than ever, and not just in a technical sense.
Nevertheless, Grafton is pointing to a genuine problem:  The scanning
projects are not resulting in "one accessible store of information." He
might also have mentioned the role of copyright standing between us and what
we need to know. But, who can tell? Maybe we'll get our heads right about
copyright, and maybe the big scan collections will make enough metadata
available that we can do searches that turn up hits across all of them.
Metadata can make  collections more "fluid" in Kevin Kelly's sense than
Grafton acknowledges. And that could come about faster and less
traumatically than Grafton seems to recognize. For example, it's not hard to
imagine circumstances in which the Open
Library<http://www.openlibrary.org/>initiative really takes off,
connecting editions of books in ways that open
up scholarship, rather than requiring scholars to go on library crawls to
find every edition.

Second, Grafton pays no mind to the collective power of readers. Our ability
to pull pieces together for one another is quite remarkable. For example,
while we have always been able to annotate physical books (well, not the
books in the libraries that Grafton is praising), those annotations in the
online world can become public. Because we don't yet have good and
widely-used networked annotation systems, we don't yet have a lot of
innovation about how to derive sense from the annotations of the "horde"
(Grafton's term for Internet users). But we will. Think about what scholars
could learn about our sociology by processing annotation patterns. Those
contributions from readers  — Coleridge scholars and the "forgotten" — will
be available to everyone with a browser, and not just to the
dusty-shouldered scholar traveling to the obscure libraries spotting the

Third, the entire publishing ecosystem will be radically disrupted once we
have electronic book readers that work. The current Sony version apparently
is ok for reading, and has the virtue of storing scores of books. But it
still treats us like armchair potatoes who don't want to write in the
margins or — more important — talk with one another as we read. Once we have
networked, paper-quality book reading devices, reading will change from
private to collaborative. That's disruptive economically, socially, and

Finally, in all this nostalgia for printed books — which a glance at my
office will show I share — Grafton misses the disruption that's already
occurred. Digital writing isn't between covers. It's eruptive, ecstatic,
self-transcendent...which is to say it's hyperlinked. This changes how we
write, how we read, and how we shape knowledge.

We will continue to need libraries for the reasons Grafton says, just as, in
addition to millions of TV sets, Boston has a dozen live theaters. But
increasingly the stacks will feel like places where knowledge is locked up,
while online will be where we feel it is at work, at play, and set free.

Will we really give up on books so easily? We have so much invested in them.
They shape knowledge. They prove expertise. They feel good. They smell like
they're grown outdoors. Their heft impresses us with our wisdom.

Yet, we'll get over them. It might take a couple of weeks, but it'll
happen. The day we have a portable, networked, interactive e-book that
actually works, we'll start to  give up on the old mite-infested beasts.

History suggests that we are perfectly capable of losing our romantic

At the Museum of the History of Science in Florence, you can see scientific
instruments from the 16th and 17th centuries that are simultaneously works
of art. Surely, we'd never demean G-d's creation by investigating it with
plodding, pedestrian purely instrumental probes!

We used to decorate our weapons with fine filigree. Now, that looks like a
waste of time and perhaps a glorification of killing. Modern Americans are
happy to kill their neighbors with anything that goes boom.

What could be more integral to a musical performance than an instrument
carefully made and beautifully decorated? That's why those electronic
keyboards are so unpopular. Hah! Sure, many musicians still vastly prefer a
Steinway to a plastic keyboard, but as we perfect electronic keyboards, the
proportion of Steinways will continue to decline.

The old radios were shaped like cathedrals. How could we ever give up on
them, except maybe for, um, transistor radios, boom boxes, or iPods?

So, start preparing your book nostalgia now, you fickle creatures.

What happens to libraries? I keep coming back to this question and over the
years I think I've come up with an answer: I dunno.

If your town didn't have a library and you were put in charge, what would
you do? More to the point, in the near future when online, networked books
are easily readable what would you do?

Building a three-story, Greek-styled shrine to books will feel like a waste
of space that could be devoted to human social learning. So, I think I'd
build a large, well-lit facility that encourages both quiet reading and
people interacting about what they're reading (and viewing and auditing). A
mental gymnasium, so to speak.

I would close the stacks where the physical books are stored to minimize the
amount of space required to store them, for browsing is better accomplished
digitally than in physical space; shelving books requires choosing only one
organizational scheme for them, while digital collections can have as many
slices, hyperlinks and recommendations as one wants. (If only someone would
write a book <http://www.everythingismiscellaneous.com/> exploring this

I'd want my town's new library to encourage as much synchronous and
asynchronous conversation about its resources as possible. Book clubs real
and virtual. Signs begging people to annotate and underline the books
(through virtual overlays, of course). Identifying experts (amateur and
professional) in ten thousand fields who are willing to help out the n00bs.
Providing recommendations based on every scrap of metadata that can be
found, including the whiff of vinegar.

Our new town library would serve another vital purpose: Negotiating access
to the maximum number of the world's works. Depending on how the economics
of publishing go, we may continue to need libraries to provide free access
to works that otherwise are for pay. If that means libraries have to
introduce artificial scarcity — "The Library only has three concurrent
licenses for this book. We will notify you when one of the copies is checked
back in" — then, well, that's where we'll be. Or perhaps by then we will
have figured out that copyright's restrictions hurt the public good more
than its incentives  advance it.

And what about the librarians? The library is going to be more complex than
ever. Librarians are going to have to manage not just the collections but
all of the readers' contributions to them. We may look elsewhere for content
expertise, but we'll look to librarians for help navigating the jungle of
metadata. That's a job for information architects. Fortunately for the
profession, the metadata jungle is propagating even faster than McDonalds is
scorching the real world's forests.

Many of us share Grafton's nostalgia for books. But what will we miss about
them, truly? The way they feel and smell? What does that have to do with
knowledge, wisdom, understanding? We should not be shaping our systems of
education and learning around the fetishes of collectors.

When we have interactive, networked, paper-quality devices, we will say good
bye to books, and good riddance.

And our hearts will break a little.

NOTE: As I write this, by coincidence fanfares are sounding for Amazon's new
e-book, called "Kindle." Here's Steven Levy's excellent article in
You can read Slashdot's reaction
Evan Schnittman <http://blog.oup.com/2007/11/kindle/> at the Oxford
University Press has a good post on the topic, although he feels that if
Kindle doesn't work, no e-book will. I, on the other hand, think e-books are
inevitable. (Everything Is Miscellaneous is available on

[image: dividing line]
What we owe

There's been a lively discussion internal to the Harvard
Berkman<http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/home/>Center (where I've had a
fellowship for the past few years) about the terms
"digital native" and "digital immigrant," occasioned by a book two members
of the community — John Palfrey <http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/palfrey/> and Urs
Gasser <http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/home/urs_gasser> — are writing called Born
Digital. Since not everyone born since, say, 1985 uses the Web, who exactly
counts as a digital native? And the term "immigrant" lumps together people
who have been using the Web since the Mosaic browser with people who fell
onto the digital cabbage truck last week. Further, there are some people
active in native rights issues who think it inappropriate to appropriate
that term. So, the field's terminology is a mess.

But John and Urs' book is likely not to be a mess at all. It aims at
introducing us to our kids, the ones who are texting while they're eating
while they're ipodding while they're downloading while they're flirting
while they're doing homework. Our kids' experience of the Internet is a lot
different than ours.

John and Urs are doing the research right now, so I won't try to guess at
the differences between how the Net looks to our kids and how it looks to
us. But the fact that there are differences, and simply the fact that we are
older and they are younger, lays an obligation on us.

We need to leave them the best Internet we can.

Yes, this is like leaving them a livable earth. And while clean air and
drinkable water are immeasurably more important than the Internet, our
digital responsibility is especially sharp. Our chore is not to maintain the
Internet. It is to shape it, form it, and set its foundations in technology,
policy, economics, law and ethics so our children can simply use it.

We can argue over what the shape of that gift should be. I would fight for
an Internet that makes as few assumptions as possible about what it is to be
used for (AKA an "end-to-end <http://www.worldofends.com/>" architecture).
But make no mistake: We are in a fight. This is our fight, for our

The next few years will determine whether our gift to our children will be
simply the latest medium for delivering content or a new public space alive
with discussion, creation, and possibility.

If we win, the Internet as we've known it and loved it will be simply a
settled part of experience, and our children won't know that it was ever at
issue. Their ingratitude will be our great reward.
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