the librarian in the techno-spa 07.20.2005, 6:54 PM
posted by ben vershbow
The uncritical embrace of technology plagues American universities and consumers alike, whose credo is "adopt first, ask questions later." An assistant professor of english from an unnamed Midwestern liberal arts college, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education of his dismay at the changes underway in American university libraries, where traditional stacks are left to deteriorate while money is lavished on fancy "techno-spas," transforming research sanctuaries into digital rec centers. The article is written in response to a very a real trend, brought to wider public attention in a NY Times article in May about an initiative at the University of Texas, Austin library in which approximately 90,000 books are to be relocated from the Flawn Academic Center to other libraries around campus to make way for a "24-hour information commons."
Benton's rhapsodizing on the pleasures of the stacks can be trying:
I once had a useful, relevant book fall on my head like Newton's apple. Perhaps it was pushed there by some ghostly scholar, one of my forebears whom I might consider myself privileged to join in the posthumous academy of spectral stack walkers.
But his overall criticism is correct. Many universities have adopted a servile stance, catering to what they perceive to be a new breed of restless, multi-tasking student. But the "customer is always right" philosophy probably isn't doing the students any favors in the long run. A generation is coming of age lost somewhere between the old print-based hierarchies of knowledge and the new Googlesque. And they aren't receiving much in the way of guidance. A university president needs shiny groves of sleek new computers to wow the funders and alumnae, just as he needs a winning football team. The business of universities and the business of technology march ahead together without much thought for what kind of citizen they might be producing.
Library administrators have had to make hard choices as costs have risen, their missions have expanded, and their budgets have failed to keep pace. But I am not so sure that the techno-spa model should be adopted so uncritically. Who will profit most from the transformation now and in the future, as fees and updates for new technologies continue indefinitely? Is that transformation really about the demands of students? If so, should we conform to their expectations, or make an effort to reshape them against the grain of the culture?
Alas, at many institutions, there is no longer much room for books on our central campuses. But we do have room for coffee bars, sports facilities, and a collection of other expensive, space-consuming amenities.
For that reason, I find it hard to accept that digitization is motivated primarily by constrained budgets and limited space. The money is there, and so is the space. It's just that colleges want to spend the money and use the space for something else that, presumably, will make them more competitive among students who are, perhaps, more interested in amenities than education.
One purpose of universities is to provide insulation from the world at large for the cultivation of sensitive minds. Universities might consider extending this principle to technology, applying the brakes on what could be a runaway train. The Amish, who, to say the least, are loathe to adopt new technologies, ask first, when confronted with a new invention, how it might change them. We could learn something from that. The answer isn't to hold candlelight vigils for the death of the card catalogue or the scribbled margin note, but rather to ask at each step how this is changing us, and whether we think it is a good thing.
(image by kendrak, via Flickr)
Posted by ben vershbow on July 20, 2005 6:54 PM
tags: Libraries, Search and the Web
gary frost on July 24, 2005 5:18 AM:
Saturday sessions of the Changing Book conference paced across the tangent directions of the future of the book including the gripping realization that wither goes the book, goes libraries. And that connection links to the destiny of reading as well.
Evidentally we are not changed. Across time and cultures we are the same. This includes our survival method of interpreting and conveying patterns and arranging books. If these books are not corporeal, they will not be arranged, but will scatter and be dissolved in an ocean of infromation.
If books are scattered and dissolved in an ocean of information we will be reading only the screen drawn in front of each reader at any moment.
gary frost on July 27, 2005 7:46 PM:
Report of the University of Iowa Libraries Changing Book conference, July, 2005 - what one university is doing to examine the future of the print book
It was a wonderful conference because absolutely everyone who participated made it so. From the start with the participants photographing themselves in the Tent Show cutouts to the very end when determined ladies braved temperatures and humidities in the 90's to run their first Linotype lines; everyone added their own momentum to the event.
It was also a wonderful conference because of the inherent excitement of the tangents and scope of the prospects for the print book. Everyone was invigorated to realize how familiar and how unfamiliar the power of the book is. Book specialists of all varieties described the quick advances of their fields while at the same time they learned of other specialties of the book that they never knew existed. The momentum of prospects for the print book drove each topic.
The Changing Book conference was wonderful because it provided many experiences beyond lecture presentations. Four exhibits, a Tent Show of over twenty five book craft and book materials demonstrations, tours, receptions and Banquet filled in the four days. Everyone was communicating with everyone about every aspect of the specialties of the book.
The conference proceedings were opened by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler with her presentation on the craft of hand bookbinding in the mid-west. She presented connections between Chicago and Iowa and connections between the social movements and production settings of book work in the first half of the 20th century. Don Etherington then followed this theme with an intricate interlacing of developments in book conservation during the second half of the century. Don mentioned that his talk was only his "own perspective" but then it proved that his perspective was compiled first hand across all the pivotal personalities and pivotal events. His narrative was delivered without visuals in a perfect illustration of careful and graceful oral presentation.
Chris Clarkson performed next, offering his own uniquely informative and lyrical description of illumination and structure of the manuscript book. His talk focused on the Hebrew Bible of Moorish Spain known as Kennicot #1, detailing its physical features and conservation treatment. Focused on the specific, Chris also converted his descriptions into a magical investigation of all hand written books.
A session then discussed the continuing role of the print collections in libraries. Yvonne Carignan reported on her interviews with faculty and their attitudes toward the print collections. These were mixed responses with some faculty primarily dependent on electronic resources and others primarily dependent on print collections. However, there was consensus support for simultaneous access to both books and screen resources. So the librarians' role is to define and extend the efficient interactivity between books and screens.
Walter Cybulski followed with an irresistible discussion that featured both his comic poise and his profound insight. "You may find this presentation bizarre and indecipherable, but imagine my surprise, when I realized that I wrote it." Then Walter broke through a haze of the future of the book. With illuminating references to modern literature and library practice, Walter concluded that the relegation of books to a subsidiary role in the transmission of knowledge is not as consequential as a relegation of the functionality of libraries to a subsidiary role in sustaining the organization of knowledge required for the transmission of culture. It was a dark realization; that the future of the libraries is directly connected to the future of the print book and that the future of libraries is a much more momentous issue.
Next we extended our sense of the book and its prospects as Kate Hayles demonstrated the reach and allure of her powerful reading skills in a critical evaluation of two exceptionally complex modern books. Presenting, without regard for her recent eye surgery, she faced straight toward the audience in a magnificent, expository lecture. Her presentation prepared and then gripped her audience in an experience equivalent to trauma. In essence she conveyed the psyche of the book itself as its own consciousness responds to the intrusions of the alien media of electronic communication.
Sarah Townsend and Kim White followed with a tandem presentation on electronic near-equivalents of the book. They examined the qualities of equivalence in a methodic and revealing review, navigating their beautifully designed "End[of]Paper" reference website. Mass market publications, textbooks, collaborative and critical works and ephemeral, all now manifest an electronic, non-paper presence.
Two panels addressed the educational programs in book crafts and the related legacy of Bill Anthony as an instructor of apprentices. Chela Metzger, Mark Anderson, Anna Embree and Julie Leonard profiled the Kilgarlin Center for Preservation of the Cultural Record, the North Bennet Street School of bookbinding, the University of Alabama Book Arts Program and the University of Iowa Center for the Book. These various program titles suggest their differences and similarities. Likewise, the statements of the apprentices of Bill Anthony; Bill Minter, Mark Esser, Larry Yerkes, Sally Key and Anne Wilcox portrayed a discipline and focus exemplified by Bill Anthony himself so that in the second panel there was an eerie presence of the missing master.
John Dean's evening lecture was divided into separate symphonic parts. He described the jeopardy of collections and librarians at risk during war and disaster around the globe. His ability to manage salvage operations and communicate with strangers is legendary. Another portion of his talk illustrated the assessment and preservation of a collection of antiphonals in a Cathedral Library. Then John also provided an oral history of his apprenticeship in Manchester account book binderies. These recollections were vivid and filled with detail of the hours of the workday assignments and they provided a living narration of a working environment that had been unchanged for centuries. John's memories of his apprenticeship were timeless memories of the whole expanse of the work of making handmade books.
Sunday began another four sessions; two on change in the perception of the book, a session on impact of the changing book on preservation and a final session concerning the transformations of print and binding on demand technologies.
Jim Canary reported on the survival and revival of Tibetan book work. This culture of the book has adopted Jim and he has adopted it so that they now both mirror each other. Jim offered a preview clip from his documentary video on Tibetan book production. The camera walks into the workshop and watches the gymnastic activities of hand block printing. The speed and agility of this work is both exquisite and exhausting and illustrated that the mechanization of book production is associated with the speed and motions of the hand processes. Jim also illustrated cooperative projects to conserve Tibetan collections and book making both on-location and in the West.
"Until you hold a book in your hand, you can't tell what it is about." This comment by D.J.Stout conveys his particular dedication to good design expressed in book format. As a book designer D.J. accepts and challenges the two page spread as he explained his interplays of typography and illustration and historical and contemporary graphics. The quality and finesse of his productions presented complete success in book design. D.J.Stout represents Pentagram Inc., an international design firm specializing in print productions.
Pam Spitzmueller discussed working relations between book conservation and book art. In a number of examples from her own work Pam illustrated a type of reversing meaning where disasters to books invigorated book art and where book art was saved by more direct reference to historical exemplars. The attributes of such hybrids then suggested that the communities of book conservators and book artist could tolerate and even benefit each other.
Tim Ely suggested no scenarios of community building but described propensities of his own mind. Citing the human capacity to construe pattern from random noise, he cataloged the kind of denials that he must make to convince viewers that his drawings are not personalized communications. "This is what I do, not what I need to know about." The dismissal of his beautiful, hand drawn cosmographies didn't work since the audience was busy reading Tim's exquisite, inexplicable illuminated manuscripts.
The session on the impact of the changing book on preservation was first addressed by Jeanne Drewes as she discussed publishing trends in the use of alkaline papers. While preservation librarians have longed for a sunset to the use of acidic book papers, the adoption of alkaline papers has been incomplete, spotty and strangely distributed. Surveys based on simple assessment spot testing prior to alkalization indicates that the trend to alkaline papers continues overall, but only US publishers of scholarly monographs can be depended on for consistent, persistent use of such stock.
Bobbie Pilette positioned book conservation within the larger field of library preservation and recommended their mutual integration. Under the administrative umbrella of a preservation program, the book conservator can focus on item treatment while the overall program benefits from a productive specialist. Of course it is unlikely that this symbiosis is that simple and challenges of institutional redirections could sweep away the whole infrastructure.
A final session toured the fast moving industries of printing and binding books on demand. The segment of this industry of most interest to the library world is the segment derived from library binding. Two leaders of the transformation of library binding to books-on-demand multiplexes are Jim Larsen and Paul Parisi and both profiled their growing operations.
Jim used his Biblical metaphors to good effect to provide reference to the strange environment of high speed copiers, streaming electronic text transmission, and in-line book manufacturing. Jim noted that the pivotal technologies of the Xerox Docutech and the Mechatronics Ultrabind were each developed independently for separate utilization prior to the emergence of short run book-on-demand concepts. Much of the needed, pioneering integration took place in the library binding industry. The bind-on-demand component is as crucial as the print engine and the library binders were intimately familiar with the needed double-fan binding technology.
And the next generation of book-on-demand technology is on the way approaching in-line production rates of six case bound copier printed books each minute. Jim's "brethren" Paul continued the book-on-demand visualization with a dazzling Power Point tour of the Acme plant. Paul detailed the application of the technologies to high quality edition binding including exceptional Acme production in oversize and custom work. Paul's high paced presentation was awesome, but he concluded with a simple expression of his pride to be building new prospects for the print book. "The book is one of the great inventions, right up there with fire and the wheel."
Susan Peterson concluded the conference with an enjoyable presentation on electronic books on demand. She emphasize that the publishing industries have always "followed the readers", producing formats and products that correspond with changing reading behaviors. She mentioned various genres and uses for electronically distributed and delivered book content and the slow, rather than sudden, increasing adoption of screen based reading habits. She can now recognize, in its early state, a "traditional" ebook.
Looking across the whole conference some themes emerge. There are the prospects for the print book and how expansive, and lively these have become. There is the paradox of changing and persistent features of a reading device that must stretch across new content, new design, new production technologies and yet remain faithful to the persistent bionic needs of the human reader. Across time and cultures we are the same. This includes our survival method of interpreting and conveying patterns and arranging books. If these books are not corporeal, they will not be arranged, but will scatter and be dissolved in an ocean of information. If books are scattered and dissolved in an ocean of information we will be reading only the screen drawn in front of each of us at any moment.
There is the dark implication that the destiny of print books is connected to the destiny of libraries and that enclaves, rather than societies at large, may carry the book and libraries across the near future and there is the deliberate purpose of the Changing Book conference itself, to mediate between these enclaves of book specialists. The Changing Book conference was designed to interplay the skills and insights of book specialists with the future of the book itself. Tim Ely invited us to enjoy this Bingo game, but mentioned that the "stakes are high".