Change for the better, or change for the worse? New technology in publishing and library science disrupts established literary, academic and business models. How can we assess the impact of a constantly flowing river of change? Will the books or libraries of tomorrow look anything like those of yesterday or today? Are the e-book, the blog post, the app and the tweet just the beginning of a deeper revolution? Will algorithms “think” just like humans in the future when we research a topic or store our narratives and information? Is respect and preference for print and physical libraries the new Luddite view, or is it still a sensible, viable posture in the volatile realm of today’s and tomorrow’s writing, reading, publishing and library science?
So you thought librarians were diminutive types with their hair tied up in buns, wirerim glasses, and nose buried deep in dusty old books? Think twice. The above statement was written by the International Conference on Books, Publishing, and Libraries and their statement is a call for proposals. It might as well be a call to action, a revolutionary manifesto to change the form of the book. The book as a vehicle of canonic knowledge, with its roots embedded deep in the histories of illuminated manuscripts and the Gutenberg Press is undergoing tectonic changes in the era of online forms of knowledge distribution and social media.
As print newspapers and magazines give way to the transformation of online versions for mobile devices, while network television succumbs to radically reshaped serial television produced by online companies such as Netflix, while hardcover novels are threatened by Kindle and iBooks and ePub, it is time for the publishing industry to wake up if it hasn’t already. We live in the age of multimedia. This means that the primacy of the written word has been supplanted by hypermediated forms of audio-visual information. A book is no longer a fixed entity with its extensions constrained by purely “suggested” footnotes that require access to yet another volume. The hypermediated era of publishing is a seamless trajectory through the trails of association that information luminaries such as Vannevar Bush or Ted Nelson or Douglas Englebart proselytized some 50 to 60 years ago.
Perhaps “disruptive” is the wrong word for this advancement in publishing and the written word. Maybe “progressive” is a better term for the availability of organizing one’s creative thought into performative multimedia experiences that immerse the viewer in sight and sound and near infinite extensibility. Not only that, the published record of thought is an open system, a community of ideas catalyzed by collective forms of narrative and database constructions. If you can imagine the structure of a book, which had formerly drifted through countless individual hands and personalized annotated notes, now re-engineered into a globally interconnected dialogue of intellectual discourse that is distributed and archived as a database of knowledge: well, there is no doubt that this is not disruptive at all, but rather the realization of a utopic form of knowledge sharing on a scale that even Thomas Jefferson could have never foreseen.
While we will always have a romantic reverence for the printed word, with its tactile and olfactory sensations irreplaceable, this nostalgic clinging to the physicality of the information object must be let go if we ever expect to advance a new world that will change forever how we experience the power of the written word. Let us not forget the Word began as sound resonating through our consciousness and reverberating through our dreams.
When it comes to publishing, we must dream.