Predictions of new media technologies supplanting paper books belong to a legacy that runs well over a hundred years deep. As early as the nineteenth century, Paul Otlet suggested microfilm would displace paper books in his essay, “On a New Form of the Book.” Other prominent thinkers such as H.G. Wells and Vannevar Bush made similar suggestions in the twentieth century, imagining microfilm as a technology that would allow readers to hold entire libraries in their personal desks. With the advent of digital technologies, e-books have far surpassed the storage and retrieval capabilities that those early visionaries thought possible. Forget the desk—pocket-sized mobile devices now connect to an online network of information that far exceeds any print collection in terms of sheer volume.
And yet, the book and its custodians—publishers, libraries, book worms—continue doing their work in the twenty-first century. Some argue that we’re seeing the last vestiges of a print-based world of knowledge as it exhaust its own resources before finally expiring. But a quick Google search suggests there may be more people refuting such predictions than there are people making them. Just yesterday NBC ran this headline: “92 Percent of Students Prefer Paper Books Over E-Books.” Citing a recent book by American University professor Naomi Baron, Words Onscreen, NBC reports that young folks prefer print books for “serious reading.” The distinction between serious and light reading seems to pivot on the length of a work. News articles capture more onscreen reading, apparently, while novels and textbooks do well in paper formats.
Despite the convenience of e-books, some occasions seem to call for print books. That might help explain why libraries not only have to reimagine themselves in the digital age but also have to continue collecting and circulating books. As digital librarian Devin Becker explains, the digital world does not shift library work so much as “expand the responsibilities and responses” to increasing demands for preservation and access. Preservation and access are two of the key tenets that define librarianship. What better institution than the library to manage print and digital publications as they fulfill different reading interests? Libraries might negotiate the differences while still meeting the general goal of circulating information.
It’s worth pointing out, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation did just recently, that our contemporary political circumstances make the need for non-commercial information specialists more acute than ever.