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Intellectual Buffet*: The End of Books?

February 26, 2013

Two weeks ago I attended an event for Vassar faculty on the subject of the future of libraries and scholarly writing. The full title was “The End of Books? Knowledge Creation, Scholarly Communication and Shaping the Library of the Future.” I’ve seen tweets and blog posts from others around the country after similar events, so it seems this subject is on the collective mind of higher education. Overall, the evening seemed to be standard fare in terms of the conversations around the country, with the following presentations:

A photograph of stacked books raising the level of a computer to create an impromptu standing desk.

We’ll always need books!
Here’s a friend’s impromptu standing desk.

  • facts and figures about the percentage of the library’s volumes that have never circulated, and the percentage of volumes that are available in digital format through the Hathi Trust
  • the technological virtues of the codex and the intellectual virtues of curling up with a book in codex form and reading it without interruption
  • the pressures on scholarly publishing, as even an established scholarly author is asked to sign away his royalties and front $15-20,000 for publication expenses
  • facts and figures about the economic factors of the choice between printed books and e-books, in terms of both finance and carbon footprint

The conversations after were as varied as the four presentations, but each conversation I moved in and out of had an element of the participants’ personal preferences (digital or analog, shall we say) and an element of fear for their students’ future. I just have a few thoughts to voice again here in response to all that.

First of all, that love of curling up with an “old-fashioned” book makes several assumptions, all based on a position of privilege. To be able to curl up with a book you have to have:

  • access to the book in the first place, either able to buy it or borrow it. The presumption that library access is available to all is false, as library privileges can be based on finances – a library card holder can have borrowing privileges rescinded if she can’t pay the fine for that book she (or a family member) lost
  • not only the ability to read, but the ability to understand the narrative of the book, which may include cultural references understood only through an advanced education
  • eyesight
  • two functioning hands, able to hold a book for a long period of time with one hand, and flip pages with the other
  • the time to spend reading, a luxury for many who are required to work overtime, or more than one job, or who are care-takers for family, and are too fatigued after such work to read at length without falling asleep

Of course, in our privileged institutions, it is rare for either faculty or students to have personal concern for any of these issues (except maybe the last), so these are all moot points in this particular discussion, but I wanted to remind us all of the privileged position from which we speak. Acknowledging such privilege, haven’t we agreed (and doesn’t the ADA enforce) that what is important in the act of knowledge creation is the intellectual content, not the physical format?

So what of the fear for our students’ future, for the future of research and scholarship? What of the fear that a Vassar student today is unable to sit down and read a book from cover to cover without giving in to numerous electronic and extra-curricular interruptions?

  • do we really think this is that different from 20 years ago, or even 50 years ago? Haven’t Vassar students always been over-committed, and struggling to learn to prioritize? I know I was 20 years ago (yes this is my reunion year, class of 1993), and my mother has agreed that she was 45 years ago (also a Vassar alum, class of 1968)
  • what curricular motivation is given to a student to sit and focus on one book? The last I checked, most syllabi included more articles or chapters than full length books, jumping from topic to topic and from author to author to cover a wider range of knowledge on a particular subject (for good reason). Typically, only literature courses allow for close reading of one volume
  • Also, we have to remember that the nature of a liberal arts education, which we prize, is that the 4-5 classes a student will be taking simultaneously are likely to include a range of subjects that in themselves are likely to “interrupt” each other (as they enrich each other), as a student moves from a literature paper to Russian homework to a chemistry lab assignment.

I will venture to say that a great deal of what we are talking about here has to do with work habits, something that takes our students four years or more to develop. It is the job of faculty to develop meaningful assignments that will motivate students to set aside the interruptions for a while, whether these are digital or analog interruptions. An important part of a student’s development is that ability to prioritize which academic assignment (of many) should come first, and where their extra-curricular commitments should fall into the plan. This doesn’t happen overnight, and even when it does happen, that book (in whatever form) may not rise to the top of the list.

There is much much more to be said on all of the subjects presented at the Intellectual Buffet; this is a conversation that continues all over the country. I look forward to seeing how the conversation develops, and whether or not the conversation will be that different 10 years from now when my daughter may be in college.

*note on the Intellectual Buffet: I believe this is a yearly event for faculty at Vassar, though this is the first time I’ve gone. No, they don’t eat the intellectuals, they eat after the intellectuals speak on a given topic – though I think it might be fun to fight over who is the most intellectual and therefore would make the tastiest treat. I am far from the top of the intellectual list in that crowd, so I would be safe.

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