On libraries, books and touch screens…

This weekend I visited the John Rylands Library in Manchester; a beautiful building in multiple ways. There’s the soft red brickwork, slim gothic vaults and arches, venetian glass windows and unexpectedly genuine Victorian plumbing and tiling in the basement facilities.  The Burning Bright William Blake exhibition was a bonus, as was the visiting group of Steampunk enthusiasts. Their Victorian costumes blended with the environment so well it was those dressed for the 21st century who looked out of place.

The University of Lincoln Library is getting an extension as part of the University’s Estates Masterplan. This will provide more space for computers, laptops and bookable rooms – but not books. http://thelincolnite.co.uk/2013/03/university-of-lincoln-begins-work-on-library-extension/ The idea of a library build to house books appears to be a dying one, if not already dead. Excepting the British Library, there can’t be many new library builds being planned these days. Amazon says sales of its Kindle e-books overtook those of printed books in 2012, although they’re unlikely to say anything different. http://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240160961/UK-eBooks-outstripping-printed-books-says-Amazon There were a few lucky souls working in the John Rylands building this weekend, but the majority of people were visitors. The atmosphere was much more museum or church than library. For most of us, the faceless internet has become our library and it isn’t a beautiful place. Dominated by advertising, we can’t be far from being offered a premium rate ad-free service. Those who can afford it will get a clean, improved experience while those who can’t will be reduced to searching in an environment looking more like the pages of a shopping catalogue than anything meaningful.

I travel with a kindle but never use it at home. They’re probably easier to read but it’s not the same. A book is a kinaesthetic experience as well as a cognitive one and there’s something symbolic about opening the covers, turning the pages and releasing the memories contained within them.  To reinvent libraries as museums or churches would be to acknowledge their social and cultural importance but it loses the lived experience. In these days of keyboards and touch screens, this is what we need to hold onto, less we wipe out from history the sensory reality of books.

I’ve been kindled…

My iphone looks great. I love the easy access to the Internet. But I’m not a great App user and am uncomfortable with the Apple closed shop philosophy. You could say the same about the Kindle in relation to Amazon but I bought one for similar reasons. I wanted the experience for myself; in this case the shift to electronic reading. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved books. Turning the pages, turning the corners, pencil annotations; books and their contents have always been important to me. I didn’t expect the transition from paper to screen to be easy but it was – and I love it!

The tipping point was the announcement Julian Barnes had won the Booker Prize for a Sense of an Ending. I’d only used the Kindle on Project Gutenberg but wanted to read this book before the weekend so I looked at my options.

  • Walk into town, pay the shop price, read straight away.
  • Order online and pay less but wait for delivery knowing if it doesn’t fit through my letterbox I’d have to go to the Post Office which is only open 7.00 – 1.00 and I’m away 6.30 to 6.30 most days…
  • Download onto the Kindle from where I’m sitting for half the price and read immediately – or to be accurate – within two minutes.

There’s no competition. Add the size, easy reading and portability of the Kindle and its win win all the way to the Amazon bank. The Kindle cover even makes it feel like a book. The only problem is I’m so used the iphone’s touch screen, I feel the Kindle should respond in the same way and still automatically reach for the screen rather than the keyboard. It’s an interesting example of how behaviour change quickly embeds itself into our unconsciousness.  

We are all being seduced by the reality of cut cost and instant access; whether to real world events through Twitter, the happenings of friends via Facebook, or working on content with a variety of collaborative tools, all at the time and place of our choosing. We are  either up front or at the back as digital communication and access to information carries some on and leaves others behind.  If social equality is about the means of participation then digital environments, in spite of their potential to be democratic, are becoming increasingly and alarmingly divisive.

Letting go of books…

The Long Hall in Trinity College Dublin is less a Library and more a museum. You would need a good head for heights to work here; the mezzanine structure gives a whole new meaning to ‘books on the top shelf.’

It’s sad but I believe books have had their day. Just as monastic scribes gave way to the printing press, so books are becoming digital and the Kindle will be spoken of alongside  Gutenburg in the history of communication. We will tell grandchildren about a place called a Library, where we borrowed real books then took them back and borrowed some more; if we were late we had to pay a fine and in a Library you didn’t talk, you were quiet. It was a contemplative place, a bit like a church, only they’re going out of fashion too. Today, Trinity College Library occupies that space between utility and relic. Visiting the Library is tagged onto seeing the Book of Kells and neither are free. Prepaying 9 euros over the Internet makes no difference to the system. You still need a ticket with a barcode. One of many things the Internet can’t do is remove the need to queue.

The Book of Kells, four illuminated Gospel manuscripts, offers a tangible link with the past but you can’t touch it. Over 1200 years old, it represents a heritage from a different age.  What were once valuable and rare sources of communication are now even more so. The Book of Kells lies behind glass in a darkened room, no photographs please, a symbol of a different age when access to what passed as knowledge was limited to church and state. Today we take such access for granted but the nature of the book itself is changing; the idea of an individual volume in your hand is being replaced with a digital reader containing multiple volumes downloaded from the Internet. The Public Library is under threat and not just because of government cuts to front line services. We need to take care because the any-time any-where, instant gratification of digital data comes at a cost. 

We need to hold onto our memories of libraries; shafts of sunlight in dusty reading rooms, the card index catalogue, the shelf upon shelf of hardbacks, some borrowed frequently, some never at all, the escape from the noise of the traffic and the bustle of the High Street with the promise of further escape into literature. Humankind has always loved stories.

The Internet is enabling a dangerous social shift. As we moved from oral to print traditions, so the move from analogue to digital culture risks the loss of what was once valued. Books are more than artifacts – they are a symbol of our times. They represent the communication of ideas and without ideas we are nothing. We need to hold onto what matters. Letting go of books is to let go of more than we might realize.

Suicide Machine

Blogs must be like buses – wait for ages then two come at once. A BBC report publicises the Suicide Machine – a service to help people disconnect from social networks. Founder Gordan Savicic says he’s had 90,000 requests and rising from individuals keen to opt out of the Internet and experience the real world instead. It had to happen. Our digital lifestyles have taken on a life of their own. Self-deletion is no longer an option. Who you gonna call? DataBusters! I’m not entirely comfortable with the suicide analogy, and a visit to the website doesn’t make it seem anymore appropriate. But maybe even the human experience of bereavement is reduced through digitisation. Like Kindle takes away the human element of book reading while still offering the same end result.  The report includes a link to Daniel Sieberg’s Declaration of Disconnection in the Huffington Post  where he refers to himself as a recovering social network addict. Suicide AND Addiction?  Scratching on the surface of the reality of the dark side of the Internet. When did you last experience digital disconnection and how was it for you?

Digital copy right or wrong?

What rights do you have when you own a book? Daniel Reetz has built his own book scanning device (Wired) and comments show how other people routinely make digital copies. Does ownership give you the right to do this? Is there a difference if you’ve borrowed a book from a library, or a friend or found it on the train Bookcrossing style  It’s clear I need to get my head around the law on digital copyright; like using Refworks, or accessing the electronic journal database, it’s not one of my strongest points so any suggestions of where to start will be most welcome.

What I am clear about is that those who have control over access to information have power but it’s those who have the least power in society who seem to be most affected and have the quietest voice. As a result we hear less about the text discrimination they suffer on a daily basis and most about corporation fears regarding revenue losses. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) want the blind to pay for any additional means of access and the US Authors Guild argue that a speaking e-reader counts as an ‘unauthorized public performance’ so should be banned. Amazon are no better; offering authors the option of disabling Kindle’s read-aloud function and I’m totally unimpressed by them saying they will soon produce ‘a blind-accessible Kindle’ – why haven’t they done so already!

Google are going to  pay $125 million to resolve claims by authors and publishers of Google-scanned books and will pay legal fees, as well as create a Book Rights Registry where copyright holders can register works to get a cut of Internet advertising revenue and online book sales. Why can’t Google simply pay what it takes to ensure virtual text can be listened to as well as seen? Why can’t Amazon put the needs of the visually impaired first instead of last? Why can’t there be some joined up thinking on access to digital data to end the current discrimination?

Yes, this is procrastination as the assignment is still largely undone, but it needs to be said and we all need to take responsibility for adding our voices to raise awareness of these issues.