by Paul Waak
NTLP Libraries for Literacy Coordinator

The influence of technology on library development is profound but indirect. Libraries are not controlled by technology. Rather, our choice of how we use technology determines the fate of libraries. Technology simplifies. It can simplify the process of communication and creativity, giving us time to engage in activities that give our lives meaning. It can also simplify communication and creativity itself, substituting our effort rather than facilitating it.

My own plodding effort to learn Japanese is an example of how technology both helps and hinders. On one hand, technology eases access to learning aids and teachers, facilitating my effort. On the other hand, technology can translate Japanese into English for me. These translations are not perfect, but they are getting better. They are certainly good enough to substitute for learning. Easier sounds better, but it has a cost we easily fail to notice.

In 1911, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy makes the following statement in Art and Swadeshi, an essay about his experience with carpet weaving, “The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsman’s fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.” The bare technology, the loom itself, is neutral to him. What matters is whether the technology handles mindless, dehumanizing labor or denies people the opportunity to do something that creates a chance to feel satisfaction. The machine may be capable of great efficiency, but efficiency is not the only think that should be desired. The goal should be a balance between efficiency and our other values.

We see the same tension with books. On episode 79 of This Week in Law, aired September 25, 2010, literary agent Ashley Grayson distinguishes books from information by saying, “the real thing that characterizes books, whether they’re the manual of surgery or whether they’re the latest best selling novel, is that books have authors. And authors need to earn money from having created the analysis if it’s non-fiction, the inspiration if it’s not based on facts at all, or the story if it’s fiction.” Compare an author’s book to a craftsman’s carpet. Just as the technology of the carpet industry determines whether a carpet is an expressive work or mechanical repetition, the technology of the publishing industry determines whether a book is an expressive work or mechanical repetition.

Sadly, authors have been in something of a death spiral. The major publishing houses have been in the business of selling paper; the words are just a means to an end. This can be seen in how prices are set by the number of pages, not the quality of the writing. In the 20th Century, books increasingly became mass produced sheets of decorated paper, and publishers streamlined the process to maintain profit. This has led to deep discounts to drive sales at the expense of creating enough profit for authors to earn a living. Authors are lucky to get even 10% of the fruit of their work. Even among established authors, most need a second source of income, whether it’s a day job or an understanding family.

Now we have eBooks. And here we reach the crossroad where technology determines what the library will become. Electronic books expose conflicts that were barely noticeable in a paper dominated publishing world. Are books really just a bunch of words decorating stuff people buy? If cheaper is all that matters, the answer is yes. eBooks are cheap to reproduce. In fact, they are so cheap the standard pricing model does not leave enough money to keep the authors employed. But that would be OK if we are willing to let books be written by software so that publishing becomes like a power loom, cranking out organized collections of facts to use and pre-scripted stories to occupy time. In fact, this software already exists and is in limited use. Without authors, digital rights management will be a non-issue because there will be no competing claims of personal ownership. Books will belong to the publishers, access to books will be leased, and books will be very cheap. The promise of cheaper books, like cheaper carpet and cheaper translation, tempts us to simplify effort to the point of substitution.

On the other hand, we could assert that authorship has value and make publishing more like a carpet loom. We could buy books at prices set by how much people actually want to read them and not the stuff they are made of. Do people want to feel paper or hear a reader? The experience, not just the stuff, should be part of the price. This will make some books cost more and others less. It will probably change who we buy books from and how distribution is managed. It would certainly change the nature of collection development. Libraries will have to take a leadership role as a contradicting voice against the "cheaper is always better" message of power loom style publication. Libraries can become a refuge for people who value the human role in writing.

Incidentally, a trade paperback book and an electronic mp3 file were both used in the construction of this article. However, neither paper nor circuitry made any contribution. This article was made possible by the creative expressions of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Ashley Grayson as well as my own. The paper and circuitry were mere contrivances.


Original Publication Date: 
November 1, 2010
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