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The Battle for the Books

In an age of digital euphoria, will good old-fashioned books become relics of the past? And what will the library of the future look like? Librarians are debating these questions and more at a conference in Berlin.

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Reaching for the stacks: will bound books be displaced by technology at the world's libraries?


As digital information mediums like Microsoft Reader become ever more popular, many fear that digital technology will soon send traditional books -- something you can hold in your hand, touch, feel, and smell -- the way of the dodo bird.

In a newspaper article published in the Summer of 2000, the American novelist John Updike lamented the potential loss, proclaiming that he'd choose a dull, half-heartedly produced book over a droning laptop any day. Describing the "seductive caress of a book in one's hand" and the "smell of the first few chapters of a new book." Updike warned "without books, we will become nothing more than a system of electronic impulses."

The "death of books" vs. a networked library At the turn of the century, Updike added his name to the canon of cultural critics who fear the loss of the book. Ever since the media critic Marshall McLuhan predicted back in 1965 that the end of the Gutenberg era was near, and that the printed word would soon be displaced by the pixel and digital screen, the number of book preservationists has grown. Others, namely the digital enthusiasts, praise the advantages of technology over bound books and dream of a networked "world library," where information is just a click away.

Will those with the power to choose the path of the future -- the fate of the book and the shape of tomorrow's library -- heed Updike's warning or forge ahead into a perceived digital information utopia?

The choice between these two extremes is the subject of a debate at this year's World Library and Information Congress (held in Berlin from August 1 to 9), where more than 4,000 librarians from 125 countries are planning the library of 2015 under the banner "Access Point Library: Media-Information-Culture."

A hybrid for the future

How can libraries store and manage ever growing volumes of information? And how can they handle this enormous task at a time of shrinking budgets and increasing costs? Are these issues better tackled through traditional or digital means? The prevailing consensus at the congress: neither the pixel nor the printed word will prevail, but the problems are best solved by a mixture of both.

"The library of the future will be a hybrid," says library director Georg Ruppelt. "The hybrid library allows electronic access to everything possible, but printed books will remain." Thus, digital and analog will coexist peacefully side-by-side.

Mirroring this statement, Jürgen Seefeldt and Ludger Syre submitted a paper describing the library of 2015. According to them, the initial experience with digital technology has failed to entirely displace the book and that will continue to be the case. It seems that no one really wants to read earnestly for long periods of time in an electronic library.

A strategic alliance

Librarians hope to maximize the advantages of both traditional books and technology in a strategic alliance. Instead of an unwieldy card catalog, they foresee efficient networked databases, with access to the reserves of libraries around the world. Yet the old-school stacks will remain, including the " smell of the first few chapters of a new book" and all the other tactile elements. Ideally, both will be stored in an aesthetically pleasing space -- a library that can serve as a social meeting place.

So, at the World Library and Information Congress at least, the battle between the printed word and the pixel has been resolved through a peaceful co-existence, with each medium retained to suit its ideal purpose. Traditional bibliophiles can keep their books and techno-fans can have their pixels. And maybe that's the way it will go in the consumer market. Even John Updike has licensed his upcoming book for digital distribution, a nod to those who would rather read on their lap-top.

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