How is the Internet changing the world of books? How will the new electronic or "e-book" affect books and reading?
Since its creation in 1977, the Center for the Book has been a forum for discussing the "future" of books and reading. The first extensive look was a congressionally authorized study of "the changing role of the book in the future," a major Center for the Book project in 1983-84. (see LC Information Bulletin, April 30, 1984.) More recently, many of the same issues were revisited at a conference hosted by the Vermont Center for the Book. Several of the general conclusions, particularly regarding the durability of the book and the importance of reading, were similar. However it also was clear that recent transformations in technology, such as the arrival of the Internet, e-mail and the e-book, also have made issues concerning "the new age of the book" even more complex and perplexing than in the mid-1980s.
The 1998 Vermont Conference
"The Future of Reading in the Digital Age," a conference hosted by the Vermont Center for the Book, was held in Fairlee, Vt., on Nov. 2, 1998. About 100 people attended the meeting, which was organized by the Vermont center's Nick Boke.
The keynoter was Steven Johnson, editor of feedmag.com, an online magazine, and author of Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (HarperCollins, 1997). His presentation was followed by perspectives from a panel consisting of Ed Morrow, co-owner of the Northshire Bookstore; Sue Quinn, author and chair of PEN New England; Chris Sachs, co-developer of the Softbook "e-book"; and Center for the Book Director John Y. Cole. Afternoon workshops focused on eight topics: "The Future of Memory," "Book Publishing in the Digital Age," "The Public Library in the Digital Age," "Paradigm Shifts and the Teaching of Reading," "The Future of the Imagination," "Newspapers in the Digital Age," "The Internet, Higher Education and the Digital Age" and "Read 2000: A Celebration."
In his opening talk, Steven Johnson noted that "the book is bearing a pretty heavy load, with lots of both doomsaying and boosterism. The doomsayers are probably way off. It's more likely that the new media will supplement the old media, not kill them off. A hundred years from now, we'll probably be reading books in the same form."
There was general agreement, however, that there will be "downsides" to the changes ahead. As one participant said, "We shouldn't be afraid to say that there will be losses, that some of the changes are things we will regret." One potential fear, about which there were differences of opinion, was that "electronic reading" would diminish society's ability to think deeply about issues. Mr. Boke noted that "styles of thinking and communication will be altered by the digital revolution, of necessity sped up and thinned out by the characteristics of the new media."
Many participants responded favorably to the discussion and exhibition of Softbook, a recently released "e-book," by Softbook marketing director Chris Sachs. He emphasized that this new technology was designed for specific uses and was not intended to replace the traditional book. E-books, he said, were "another way of delivering the written word."
Summarizing the conference, Mr. Boke felt that in spite of the perplexing issues raised, participants were "qualifiedly sanguine about the future of reading." Not only will the book not disappear, but "reading will remain a cultural requisite." In fact, "electronic technologies may actually increase access to information, and perhaps even extend the ranks of readers and thinkers."
The 1983-84 Library of Congress Books in Our Future Study
Research by consultants and discussions among the project's 21-person Advisory Committee resulted in two publications. The first, reflecting primarily the conclusions of then Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin, was published in 1984 as Senate Report 98-231. Books in Our Future, a 49-page document, is divided into two parts: "The Culture of the Book: Today and Tomorrow," and "A Manifold Program for a Massive Problem."
The report's central conclusion was: "Ours is a Culture of the Book. Our democracy is built on books and reading. This tradition is now threatened by the twin menaces of illiteracy and aliteracy [having the ability to read but no interest in doing so]. We must enlist new technologies with cautious enthusiasm in a national commitment to keep the Culture of the Book thriving. What we do about books and reading in the next decades will crucially affect our citizens' opportunities for enlightenment and self-improvement, their ability to share in the wisdom and delights of civilization, and their capacity for intelligent self-government."
The second publication, the 399-page Books in Our Future: Perspectives and Proposals was edited by John Y. Cole and published by the Government Printing Office in 1987. It contains individual statements from each of 21 advisers; lengthy excerpts from the report of the project consultants; background articles (mostly by Advisory Committee members); and excerpts from recent U.S. government reports.
In a recent report, Center for the Book Director Cole noted that the Books in Our Future project helped "by identifying key ideas around which our program has been shaped." These include the emphasis on the co-existence of books and new technologies; the development of national campaigns to raise awareness of the "twin menaces" of illiteracy and aliteracy; and the distinctions that must be drawn between knowledge and information and between different motivations for reading. Finally, he noted that the creation of the center's partnership networks grew directly out of Part Two ("A Manifold Program for a Massive Problem") of the Senate Report.
Single copies of the 1984 Senate report, "Books in Our Future," are available free from the Center for the Book as long as supply lasts. Requests should be sent to the Center for the Book, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, DC 20540-4920. Requests should be in writing or via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.