What is a book and can it change?

The UNESCO logo

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Yes, I know it’s been some time.  Life sometimes gets in the way of living – and writing.  And it’s all a question of priorities, which is prioritised as today’s theme, after I read that the Second UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries will be held in Lombardia, Italy, from 6th to 8th June 2011.  Their focus for 2011 is, importantly for us, “The book tomorrow: the future of the written word”, as ambiguous a title as you are likely to meet anywhere.  Of course, I would love to be there, but Australia is a bit out of the loop for impetuous Italian trips.  But this is clearly going to be an important discussion forum: look at how many organisations are involved: http://focus2011.org/institutions-corporate-bodies/.

Instead, I avidly read some interesting contributions which have already been made pre-conference, which you will find at http://focus2011.org/blog/ , the blog of the Focus 2011 site.    In chronological order, let me make some comments about these contributions.

Abdelaziz Abid outlines the primary objective of UNESCO as to build a knowledge society: an objective supported by the World Digital Library which was launched in 2009.  Clearly there is a strong relationship between knowledge societies, and libraries which provide and promote access to knowledge, and the digital library is understood to be the ‘hub of knowledge societies’.  He expresses the view that digital libraries, by being plugged into networks, provide access to a much wider range of resources than is possible in a traditional library.   He differentiates between the WDL, Europeana and Google Book Search.  as well as describing the construction of the WDL in some detail.

Milagros del Corral suggests that digitisation is changing the ways in which we read and write, as well as the business model of publishing.  He points out that books are no longer static as they can easily be altered or modified (I don’t really agree with this general statement, and he provides no clear example).  He suggests that access may be ‘free’, but this too will depend on a number of factors, not least membershio of some organisation.  A further jumble of almost rhetorical questions follows: Will print be high or low brow in a digital age?  Does e-reading affect our thoughts and the ways our brains work? HOw will digitisaition efforts be financed on an ongoing basis?  How can creative endeavours be taxed?  What is the future of copyright?  To many of these questions, the appropriate answer may well be, “Well, let’s wait and see” as predictions are notoriously inaccurate.  The digitisation of library resources is presented unequivocally as the next stage of ‘library evolution’.

Christian Roblin claims that libraries are now at a crossroads, as they will be a ‘service’ when libraries are ‘without books’.  Other risks include rights determination, long-term partnerships and their sustainability, and disseamination which avoids illegal re-use.   It is the library service itself that is the most problematic area for Roblin, however.  The loss of expertise – such as the librarian’s ability to index materials – now appear extinct and the question then becomes, What can libraries offer in the digital universe?  I, for one, am convinced that libraries never existed in the first place to provide a certain group of people with the opportunity to index monographs.

Copyright remains an important problem in the digital age, and this is addressed by Esther Wojicki.  She associates the Creative Commons movement (an initiative of Larry Lessig, Hal Abelson and James Boyle) as deeply associated with the digital age, as digitised materials cannot be controlled in the same way as physical materials.  She states that, “Copyright is based on a fundamental purpose of creation of more knowledge and culture”, which is one way of looking at it which is refreshing.  Having said that, however, she asks whether different publishing formats or digital genres may ned different copyright laws, a suggestion that does not seem to be consistent.

The biography of a book, the contribution made by Prashant Narekuli, led me to anticipate an analytical bibliographic approach.  Indeed, he begins by suggesting that ebooks have been designed to resemble ‘real’ books as closely as possible.  This is seen as a good thing, allowing people to embrace the new technologies easily, even though this has prevented an imaginative consideration of other ways in which contemporary technologies could be used.  For some reason, he suggests that new devices should come with health warnings, similar to those found on packets of cigarettes.  I fail to understand the connection nor the point he is making.

The future of reading (and writing) is explored further by Dr Sok-Ghee Baek.  Apart from the cliched notion of a ‘paradigm shift’, what is considered here is not only a complete break from printed to digital books, but some kind of oppositional tension between the two formats, based on the need for a suitable business model.  On the one hand, he argues, people use digital media because they are easy to use, but on the other, ‘traditional paper books will continue to be a core companion’.  So, which is it, Dr Baek?  This is rather inconclusive.  Much of the rest of his piece is devoted to a description of the situation in South Korea, accmonpanied by statements such as ‘Technology will continue to develop in the future’, ‘International solidarity is also needed for copyrights protection’, and ‘digital publication and digital reading have become problems in reality’ (really?  how?).  Baek does not seem to support the idea that ‘reading is reading is reading’ (thank you, Gertrude Stein) – whether a digital or analogue document is used to support the activity.

A view from Japan is presented by Haruok Tsujita, describing the Japaneses as early embracers and adopters of a range of technologies.  In spite of this, he believes that ebooks should imitate as closely as possible the traditional formats of books to which we have become accustomed, even though there are advantages to be exploited for various groups, such as the visually impaired.

Copyright is again addressed, this time by Peter Brantley.    In this model, the ‘author’ must be redefined, as this could be the software engineer, the participant user who customises his/her experience, or even the provider of the facility.  It is this latter role that the library is thought to assume.  He concludes that the technologies could (and should) merge the roles of the writer and readre, composer and artist and so forth: an idea not dissimilar (albeit at rather a different level) to Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’.

A rather more pragmatic view – on training in the production and distribution chain – is addressed by Aida Diab, as it is thie changes in this ‘chain’ that demands a new organisation.  The word ‘evolution’ is used again here, implying not only the notion of progress and improvement, but also of reification and inevitability.  She suggests that ther should be a ‘new approach’ which is ‘more focused on content than product’, and by this I assume she means the intellectual content as opposed to the physical format.  In the list of important things that ‘must’ be done, there is talk of ‘managemnet tools’, ‘new economic models’, ‘exploitation of free-of-charge licenses and creative commons’, ‘model the financial impact’, and of course adapting to ‘evolutions on an everyday basis’, which I am sure Darwin would find rather surprising.  This sentence epitomises this contribution for me: “By mastering the new production chain, we can augment considerably the commercial potential and the visibility of the editorial offer while sustaining innovation” which explains, to me anyway, absolutely nothing at all about the future of the book.

Then there is the question of whether digitisation is good, bad or indifferent, a topic tackled by Anand Bhushan.  Sensibly, the relationship between costs and benefits is raised, and two benefits are suggested: increased access and preservation.  ‘Digital preservation’ has always seemed to me to be rather an oxymoron.  ‘Increased access’ is also dubious, if you consider all the impediments that still exist for so many people on the planet: lack of electricity, lack of technical skill, no equipment, illiteracy and expensive internet connections, just to start.  So we are really talking about increased access for an elite to possibly the most ‘highbrow’ or elite materials – the cultural heritage which, it is considered by various people for various reasons – is worthy of being digitised.  The usual litany of problems with digitised documents is also raised: possibilities for privacy; different physical reading experience; technical incompatabilities, recondite technological tricks and , interestingly, energy consumption.  He continues by discussing which genres of literature are worth digitising: science fiction, poems, short stories…  As if reading is only associated with entertainment and leisure…

Janet Murray sensibly opens her contribution by stating that that “here is nothing sacred about print”.  Of course, this was not true historically, and for the illiterate, ‘print’ remains as inaccessible as anyting else sacred.  She makes the useful point, though, that books are merely a medium of representation, as are computers, and that electronic or digital representation is inherently different as an alternative, particularly because of the possibilities for modification and interactivity between author and reader.  She maintains – and quite rightly, in my view – that “books will not disappear with the advent of digital genres”.  What is less clear is the ways in which ebooks might ‘evolve’ as we become more familiar with the capabilities of the technologies, and as new technologies develop which are as yet unimagined.

It is this last (and most recent) piece with which I concur.  In accordance with the definitions which I have previously suggested, it is rather foolish to consider the ‘book’ as a monograph or, perhaps even more specifically, as a codex.  If knowledge is what we know, and information is what we choose to share with people, and which we must represent in abstract symbols that are granted meaning only within a cultural context, and further, if a document is a container in which we can record that information, abstracting it still further by representing it in ‘writing’, so that our ideas (‘information’) can overcome spatio-temporal constraints), of course there is a future for the book.  Whether it is digital or printed on paper is quite immaterial: all we, as librarians and information professionals, are concerned with, is facilitating the flow of information (‘ideas’) from one person to another, across space and time.  Yes, the new technologies will make us think of what we do in a different way, but our purpose and objectives remain the same, as does our belief that information is transformative.  We believe, as an article of faith, that receiving ideas and understanding them, making meaning of them, assists us (and others) in our life’s journeys.  Whether we receive that information, or those ideas, by radio, morse code, comic book, newspaper, movie, Blu-Ray or 3D television really doesn’t matter, even though we do know that communication mediated by technologies may affect meaning in some ways, and demand new ‘literacies’.  But that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, perhaps I’m not that sorry that I’m missing this discussion.  The core of the issue has not yet been identified, in these contributions at least, but perhaps the appointed speakers will have ideas that demand further attention.

How to cope in the digital world. Part 1.

Is this in the future for information professionals?

Now that we are well on our way into 2011, I’ll dare to suggest some of the things that I think we will have to think about in the near future.  I did once acquire a crystal ball, but it didn’t work: I therefore offer no predictions, but rather some thoughts on what seems to be going on at the moment, focussing on the possible effects on the information management professions.  I will mention some of these each day for the next couple of days.  Please do not hesitate to comment, as well as to add issues and phenomena that are important in your field of endeavour.

Multifunctionality and convergence

We have seen, for more than a decade, increased multifunctionality of information and communication technologies (ICTs).  The phone is now a camera, voice recorder, workout monitor, letter writer, internet accesser, aide de memoire and map finder, as well as other things.  This is a continuation of the development of computers, which were soon used for a lot more than just arithmetic and calculation.  The social media and search engines are moving in the same way: FaceBook does email, Bing integrates FaceBook data, FaceBook can also be used to a member of various blogs and webistes of interest.  Google appears to positioning itself to run the Googleverse, as it develops its own versions of popular software – such as email and wordprocessing – as well as interesting additions such as Skype, blogging, Flickr and, of course, the library: Google books.  And then there’s Google Scribe, which anticipates what you are going to write; Google Body, which allows you to peel back, layer by layer, the human body; and Google Goggles, which enables you to search Google using pictures from your smartphone.

I posited previously (2002) that converging technologies have led to increasing convergence between the information professions: will this continue?  I believe that this would be desirable, but whether it is practicable and attainable is, of course, a different matter.  The arguments for increased convergence – or at least collaboration and multidisciplinary interaction – include a stronger public presence and perhaps more political clout (within organisations and communities); sharing of solutions to problems which have perhaps been located within particular disciplines/professions, but which are experience by all; recognition of the similarities, rather than the differences, of the challenges that face the information professionals.  Some of the more complex issues that must be dealt with include the retention of professional profiles, as each discipline/profession has unique characteristics and different contributions to make; the plethora of professional associations, all of which require membership fees and produce newsletters and journals that must be read; and lastly, the overwhelming number of subdivisions that can be identified in this enormous field.  Too much ‘multifunctionality’ can be diffuse – Jack of all trades, master of none.  But such demands are presently made on us: just consider the number of different tasks that must be executed in the role you currently occupy.

Social networking and user-generated content

The appearance and ongoing development of Web 2.0 appears to have no end.  In the analogue world, because of the relatively tedious ways in which documents were created and distributed, more control was possible, perhaps because of necessity.  Documents were not created or published unless it was necessary for whatever reason.  Publishing procedures were closely linked to bibliographic control systems: ISSNs, ISBNs, in book cataloguing information, edition statements and so forth formed part of a vast mechanism.  But even in the 1980s and before, people complained about information overload.  Then the internet appeared, and information professionals groaned: how on earth were we going to manage this flood of documents?  It appeared that every Tina, Dorothy and Helen could publish whatever they liked.  We didn’t even know what was out there, never mind trying to keep up with classification and cataloguing.  And then Web 2.0 happened, with amazing social possibilities.  The hallmark of this version of the internet is user creation and interaction.  Barthes mentioned the ‘death of the author’, in the sense that each reader will recreate an author’s text, an idea explored also, in some detail, by Umberto Eco in his ‘The open work’.  The death of the Author, with a capital A, has another interpretation now: the Author does not have to condoned, approved, validated, lionised or even recognisable to be able to publish as much as s/he wants to.

Part of the problem for the reader is being able to contextualise the author, in order to draw meaning and fully understand the ideas that are being conveyed.  The Author is no longer automatically an ‘authority’ (“I read it in a book so it must be true”): far more sophisticated skills are required in order to select, understand, analyse and critique the information with which we are now overwhelmed.  This is sometimes called ‘critical information literacy’ which is quite different from the ‘information literacy’ that librarians used to know and love.  In fact, it might almost be called ‘critical media literacy’ or, the term I currently prefer, ‘Critical Digital Literacies’.  All the technology in China – and the rest of the world – will not help us one jot if the general population does not develop these skills.  I believe that we, as guardians of memory and cultural heritage, are the very people to undertake this.

Increasing epublishing and ereading means, at the very least, familiarisation with the tools that are required is necessary.  Does this mean the end of publishers?  How does it change the publishing cycle?  There have already been huge shifts in educational resources and scholarly communication patterns (more on this at another time); Open Access and Open Source are widely used and increasingly popular.  This will have, perhaps, the greatest impact on poor countries – but what will the nature and consequences of this be?

Consider the rise of civilian journalism.  I grew up in an environment in which it was natural to doubt every word on the radio or in the newspapers on current events; we needed to understand that we were being fed half news or even no news at all.  Sadly, in environments were ‘free speech’ is protected by law, too many accept that what news is being reported, and what comments are made on it, is both important and authentic.  The ways in which journalism (‘churnalism’ is a new aspect of this – see www.churnalism.com) and the media operate is accepted as part of the transparent background.  Civilian journalism empowers ordinary people to report directly on what is happening: this, enhanced by Twitter and Facebook, provide different interpretations and views.  It can be said, therefore, that in this regard, the internet is like Foucault’s Bibliotheque Fantastique: a place where we go to discover ideas and to have them challenged.  The new heroes are, if you like, at the bottom of the pyramid, in terms of sheer number, at least.

The other aspect of this is that printed newspapers are likely to shift to online only.  An advantage of this for individuals is that they can use push technologies – news aggregators such as RSS feeds – to deliver only the bits they want to know about.  And then there was Twitter – and now, for those with iPad tablets, FlipBoard, which allows you, effectively, to create your own magazine.

As information professionals, what are we going to do about this?  How will we manage and encourage access to all these ideas?   A Sisyphean task, seemingly.  How can our knowledge and skills be used?  How can we access and use user commentaries and annotations?  At the same time, we must ask, “Who is NOT using the internet?  Who is NOT publishing their ideas?”  This group may include anyone from serious scholars to the illiterate and disadvantaged: whose voices need to be heard?  Should we have any involvement with this – knowledge creation and distribution?

The rise of secret gardens, or, the Splinterweb.  Social networking is all well and good, but perhaps the hysteria is now over: do we all want everybody to know our every move, our ever mundane and trivial thought?  And let’s not mention the time it takes to pursue this triviality.  It seems that people are becoming more selective, perhaps more discreet and attempting to use their internet space and time more meaningfully.  This would suggest not only targeted audiences, but a judicious and discriminating approach to who can see what.  There is little doubt that, with the emphasis on intellectual property (note for example the astronomical number of patents that are being applied for and approved), most knowledge creators/publishers wish to protect and preserve theirs.  So, while a considerable portion of the internet will remain public and open, increasingly we are likely to see inaccessible areas.  Costs may be involved, too.

I would be very interested to hear what issues you believe confront us at this juncture.

All the best

Sue