Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Books as benevolent zombies

If you follow the links from More or Less Bunk's question "How do you skim an e-book" (my answer: you can't, and I own a bunch of them), you'll find a whole lot of articles on libraries getting rid of books. This is not a new event, of course, but it was a little chilling to read (at The Chronicle) that "It is no longer appropriate to treat most print resources as protected objects, or the college library as a museum for books," in part because the sight of too many books just frightens our little chicken-hearted students to death by being too "daunting." Books are not just dead but scary. They're zombies.

Huh? Are we talking about the same students who thrive on vampire, zombie, and torture porn movies and bloody video games? They're daunted by a stack of books? Seriously? And if they're "daunted," isn't it our job to show them how to get over it?

In my classroom, we're doing more library work than ever before, and the students seem to be really engaged by it. Maybe I'm fortunate that Northern Clime's librarians enjoy showing the library to students. By "showing" I don't mean forcing students to sit passively in a room watching as a librarian conducts Boolean searches and drones on for an hour that seems like a year. No, I mean getting them into the stacks to look at and leaf through the books. Some librarians like to say that e-books are the future, but really, bound books are the great undead, springing back to life in the hands of readers.

Let's take some zombie-age books as an example. Librarians like the one at the Chronicle say that books after 1850 aren't rare (although some seem to be doing their level best to make them so), and some say that Google Books makes getting these books less of a problem.

Well, let's see. This week I needed to read a reasonably obscure novel from 1870. Yep, Google books had it, or part of it: only every other page had been scanned. Descending into the entombed depths of the library, I found a copy of the original novel, from 1870, along with a number of other first editions on the shelves by this author. If this library were following the "books scare students" model of dubious library best practices, these would've been gone a long time ago. Instead, they were right there, waiting for someone to bring them back to life.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

This has happened before. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, people thought, "Now that we have printed books, we don't need those old manuscripts anymore!" and happily used the old manuscripts for lighting the fire, covering jam jars, and who knows what all. A few centuries further on and people started wishing they had the manuscripts back. A book is not simply its text.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here. Nonetheless, I appreciate this great post, and hope somebody besides other choir members reads it.

profacero said...

Lawdy, lawdy, lawdy. It makes sense to weed one's personal collection but one only can because the library keeps books.

I'm about to press send on a large external grant to buy books and the research office and everyone who hears about it jumps for joy.

I wonder about film, though -- it might be one doesn't need to acquire as much of it as before, since so much can be streamed. I'm almost thinking it is more weedable, but given the 15th / 16th century mistake about manuscripts, maybe not.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

Film, however, suffers from the same technological pressure of obsolescence as does digital media, albeit somewhat less so. A roll of cellulose with pictures in it is at least comprehensible, and someone could design a machine that might project it if there were to be no more; but it's still not instantly accessible in the way that a book is (assuming that the typeface is not black-letter or something). Digital media obsolesces far quicker of course--archived on 5.25in floppy disk in Wordstar 2.0!--but the bar to entry is still higher than with print, at least if access to the original artefact as intended is required.

undine said...

Dame Eleanor: Thanks, and right back at you--"a book is not simply its text."

Profacero--Film can sometimes be streamed, if you're talking about Hangover 2, but if you want something that is more obscure, it can be very, very difficult to get. Example: A colleague uses a film from the 1980s regularly in a course, but Netflix stopped streaming it and offering it on DVD, and it isn't available through Interlibrary Loan or at our library. He can get it on eBay, as a used copy, for about $350.00, which seems to make it pretty inaccessible unless you're rich. That's actually a fairly common trajectory: a film comes out on DVD and then becomes really tough to find or ridiculously expensive a few years later. And a lot of films--the ones that I'm primarily interested in in my work--are never streamed and only rarely on DVD. I order them for myself and for the library if they come out on DVD. I hope you get that grant for the books, though!

Jonathan Jarrett--Absolutely with you on the fast obsolescence of digital media. I think of this more, actually, since I started listening to the BBC History Magazine podcast (where I expect to hear your voice at some point) and learn just how much information is available in early records even after the kinds of destruction that Dame Eleanor talks about.

profacero said...

Books, microfilm, microfiche, dvd, $180K, we'll see.

OK, good re film. You'd be surprised what you can stream: I actually find rare stuff streaming that I can't get in any other format even if rich. This isn't from Netflix though, and/but it will only be real as long as the institution that streams it is.

My dept chair keeps accusing me of being spendthrift for insisting we acquire film when it can be Netflixed but much serious film can't, for one thing; Netflixing isn't appropriate for serious study, for another; and telling students to just Netflix something is not pedagogically good, for a third.