If there’s a tendency in our culture to fetishize anything “IRL” – to treat the non-digital as somehow more real, more meaningful, and more authentic – a particularly pure expression of this can often be found in any discussion of ebook vs books in print. By now it’s a few years old and, like other great and frequently motionless debates, both sides are well-acquainted with each other and with each other’s arguments. This argument as a whole isn’t my primary focus here so I don’t want to spend too much time on it, but I think a summary of some of the major points is still useful.
Proponents of ebooks argue for efficiency, cheapness, portability, and the democratizing effects of self-publishing (which ebooks don’t constitute but arguably make easier). Interestingly, proponents of the dead tree format often make arguments that are essentially sensual in nature: in addition to bemoaning a hypothetical drop in quality from print to digital, they talk about the fundamentally tactile nature of print books, the weight and heft, the smell of the pages and the feel of turning them – in short, the physical “reality” of print is somehow more real and more legitimate than words on a screen.
A more interesting extension of this argument is currently playing out in the realm of public libraries. Increasingly stretched for funding and facing a culture in which how we read and how we pay for it is changing in some important ways, many libraries are struggling with the question of how to adapt to the prevalence of ebooks – or, in some cases, with the question of whether to adapt at all. How exactly does one “lend” something non-physical (Harper-Collins actually limits the circulation of each copy to twenty-six “lendings”)? How do libraries compensate authors and publishing companies for ebooks? What happens to libraries as physical spaces when more and more of their lending occurs digitally?
What the ebook vs. print debate highlights is the fetishization of the physical in favor of the digital. What it misses – what is almost always missed in debates of that kind – is that the reality of the situation isn’t necessarily zero-sum in nature. The argument is not exclusively for one or the other. Publishing and reading are not and probably will not be be all digital or all physical; they’re far more likely to continue to be an augmented blend of the two, and a more useful approach would be “what will the nature of this augmentation be and what difference does it make?” rather than “EBOOKS BAD/PRINT OLD”.
By the same token, what the debate over digital technology in the context of public libraries highlights are some of the difficulties inherent in that very augmentation; it makes room for more interesting questions. Given that libraries are physical spaces and that the nature of those spaces often matters for how they’re used – for community, organization, and research – how does the increased adaptation of digital technology change those spaces? Do they become less public – perhaps more like some kinds of archives, only opened by specific permission and for specific use? Will more people borrow ebooks for ereaders or phones, and what difference will that make in terms of who actually makes use of libraries? How will that change as the technology itself changes?
Earlier this month The New Republic published an essay by David Bell that addressed many of these questions – and more besides – with the potentially more useful position that the existence of libraries is not necessarily threatened by digital technology, but that technology is going to change the nature of what we understand as a library and how we use it. Most importantly, Bell correctly identifies the ways in which the increasing enmeshing of the digital and physical in the consumption of information – and of stories – makes the physical existence of libraries even more important in some respects:
Librarians do not just maintain physical collections of books. Among other things, they guide readers, maintain catalogues, develop access portals for electronic sources, organize special programs and exhibitions, oversee special collections, and make acquisition decisions…the digital landscape is wild and wooly, and it is crucial to have well-trained, well-informed librarians on hand to figure out which content to spend scarce subscription dollars on, and how to guide readers through it.
The crucial point is not to separate the digital from the physical in this case but to recognize the complex and reciprocal relationship between the two – one informs the other and not always in the same direction. Digital technology is changing how libraries exist and function as physical spaces but the physical nature of libraries and all the cognitive frameworks that accompany our understanding of what libraries do and are also affects how we conceive of technology working within that context – for example, the very idea of “lending” at all.
Bell actually edges toward this trap a bit when he points out that physical libraries are communities of experts and scholars – they are, but so are people connected through technology, and one shouldn’t be privileged over the other as somehow more real or more authentic. As Nathan Jurgenson pointed out earlier this week in his piece on augmented education, false binaries ultimately lead us nowhere useful. When we consider learning, books, research and scholarship, and the spaces in which those things are done and used, we should be sensitive to the complex relationships involved, and we should be asking how technology can best be used in the service of those things.