By Robert Darnton in the CHE
Confusion about the nature of the so-called information age has led to a state of collective false consciousness. It’s no one’s fault but everyone’s problem, because in trying to get our bearings in cyberspace, we often get things wrong, and the misconceptions spread so rapidly that they go unchallenged. Taken together, they constitute a font of proverbial nonwisdom. Five stand out:
1. “The book is dead.” Wrong: More books are produced in print each year than in the previous year. One million new titles will appear worldwide in 2011. In one day in Britain—”Super Thursday,” last October 1—800 new works were published. The latest figures for the United States cover only 2009, and they do not distinguish between new books and new editions of old books. But the total number, 288,355, suggests a healthy market, and the growth in 2010 and 2011 is likely to be much greater. Moreover, these figures, furnished by Bowker, do not include the explosion in the output of “nontraditional” books—a further 764,448 titles produced by self-publishing authors and “micro-niche” print-on-demand enterprises. And the book business is booming in developing countries like China and Brazil. However it is measured, the population of books is increasing, not decreasing, and certainly not dying.
2. “We have entered the information age.” This announcement is usually intoned solemnly, as if information did not exist in other ages. But every age is an age of information, each in its own way and according to the media available at the time. No one would deny that the modes of communication are changing rapidly, perhaps as rapidly as in Gutenberg’s day, but it is misleading to construe that change as unprecedented.
3. “All information is now available online.” The absurdity of this claim is obvious to anyone who has ever done research in archives. Only a tiny fraction of archival material has ever been read, much less digitized. Most judicial decisions and legislation, both state and federal, have never appeared on the Web. The vast output of regulations and reports by public bodies remains largely inaccessible to the citizens it affects. Google estimates that 129,864,880 different books exist in the world, and it claims to have digitized 15 million of them—or about 12 percent. How will it close the gap while production continues to expand at a rate of a million new works a year? And how will information in nonprint formats make it online en masse? Half of all films made before 1940 have vanished. What percentage of current audiovisual material will survive, even in just a fleeting appearance on the Web? Despite the efforts to preserve the millions of messages exchanged by means of blogs, e-mail, and handheld devices, most of the daily flow of information disappears. Digital texts degrade far more easily than words printed on paper. Brewster Kahle, creator of the Internet Archive, calculated in 1997 that the average life of a URL was 44 days. Not only does most information not appear online, but most of the information that once did appear has probably been lost.
4. “Libraries are obsolete.” Everywhere in the country librarians report that they have never had so many patrons. At Harvard, our reading rooms are full. The 85 branch libraries of the New York Public Library system are crammed with people. The libraries supply books, videos, and other material as always, but they also are fulfilling new functions: access to information for small businesses, help with homework and afterschool activities for children, and employment information for job seekers (the disappearance of want ads in printed newspapers makes the library’s online services crucial for the unemployed). Librarians are responding to the needs of their patrons in many new ways, notably by guiding them through the wilderness of cyberspace to relevant and reliable digital material. Libraries never were warehouses of books. While continuing to provide books in the future, they will function as nerve centers for communicating digitized information at the neighborhood level as well as on college campuses.
5. “The future is digital.” True enough, but misleading. In 10, 20, or 50 years, the information environment will be overwhelmingly digital, but the prevalence of electronic communication does not mean that printed material will cease to be important. Research in the relatively new discipline of book history has demonstrated that new modes of communication do not displace old ones, at least not in the short run. Manuscript publishing actually expanded after Gutenberg and continued to thrive for the next three centuries. Radio did not destroy the newspaper; television did not kill radio; and the Internet did not make TV extinct. In each case, the information environment became richer and more complex. That is what we are experiencing in this crucial phase of transition to a dominantly digital ecology. Read the rest of this entry »