Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Why Books?" Conference Day 2 Recap

[Note: for my recap of Day 1, go here]

Yesterday was the main event for Radcliffe's "Why Books?" conference, a full day of conversations and panel discussions on the history and future of books. I took some notes and offer this as a brief recap of the day, but (thankfully for you), the entire conference was taped and will be posted on the Radcliffe website within a couple of weeks, so stayed tuned for that. Radcliffe also had assigned bloggers for each site visit and panel discussion, and those will be posted shortly on their website. Additionally, there was a very active Twitterstream at #whybooks, where the conversation is ongoing (one of the best moments of the day came very early, when the Twitterati managed to get "Adrian Johns" as a trending topic in Boston).

The morning began with remarks by the conference organizers, who had done a fantastic job of planning the day's events. They had an unexpectedly tremendous response for the conference, which led to several overflow rooms where spectators watched a simulcast of the panels. I think the energy and interest stems from a real enthusiasm for and engagement with the question the conference's title posed, and speaks to the fact that scholars, readers and others are taking an active role in understanding the future of the book and print culture. This is important, and very good.

Following the opening remarks Nancy Cott moderated a conversation between Robert Darnton and Stuart Shieber, "Future Formats of Texts: E-books and Old Books." Darnton led off, saying (as he's been saying for years) that old books and e-books aren't opposites, but are more complementary than contradictory - by making them work together, we can offer new ways of scholarly research and presentation that are richer and more complete. He also noted that plans for a "national digital library," featuring digital books from the country's major research collections, are in fact not only feasible, but moving slowly forward (this is good to hear, since I've previously been critical of too much talk on this front and not enough action from the people who could actually make some headway in this area).

Shieber showed the trailer for Lane Smith's It's a Book, and flipped the conference question around to "Why Not E-books?" His presentation contrasted various capabilities and functionalities of e-books and e-readers as compared to printed books, and ended by suggesting that in the future, e-readers might well be preferable to printed books (weight, capacity, &c.) but that books would remain preferable to e-books (tactility, design, &c.).

During the question period Shieber responded to a question about e-book lending by noting that the real issue with e-books is that in some sense it remains the case that you'd really only renting the e-book, not buying it - and that e-books require (and will always require) some intermediary device to read them, whereas books need no such thing (with the necessary caveats for people with accessibility concerns).

The second morning panel, moderated by John Palfrey, featured Adrian Johns and Matthew Kirschenbaum, and was titled "Storage and Retrieval" (though there was much more to it than the title suggests). In his talk, "The Use and Abuse of the Universal Library" Johns posed a series of questions that have long plagued the would-be creators of universal libraries: what are they for? what are their purposes? He offered a fascinating look back at various schemes for creating universal libraries, including the British scheme for a "deposit library," and then argued that today's universal libraries (in which he includes Google Books), are organized in no small part for what he calls "non-display uses" - that is, data-mining and other types of research that don't involve traditional "reading" as we think of it. He concluded that books in the physical sense might end up providing a "space of retreat, in which public debate may survive."

Kirschenbaum began his talk by posing a little thought experiment about what literary studies in the future would look like. If a future scholar were to study the composition, publication and reception of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, he posited, where would the scholar begin? Surely he'd want to consider the extra features found only on the Kindle version ... and all the reviews and rankings and interviews on Amazon ... and all the versions of the manuscript stored on Franzen's laptop, and on his editor's computers ... and all the emails Franzen wrote about the book - you see the trouble. Born-digital materials pose tremendous challenges for archives, Kirschenbaum said, but in the end, the technical hurdles aren't the biggest issue: it will be the legal and societal issues that pose the greatest challenges. As an example of technical hurdles being hurdled he noted that one of Salman Rushdie's computers is available as an emulator on a terminal at Emory (more on that here). However, he concluded by noting that the new "Web 2.0" apps, "cloud storage" and that sort of thing may prove much more difficult to deal with than the relatively "easy" problem of PCs.

The panel after lunch, "Circulation and Transmission," was moderated by David Hall and featured papers by Isabel Hofmeyr and Meredith McGill. Hofmeyr discussed the Indian Ocean as a transoceanic network of print, focusing on Gandhi's printing in South Africa. McGill discussed "print outside the book" and the potential for study of non-canonical authors that digitization offers (i.e. poetry published in newspapers, &c.). McGill particularly noted the serious problem that a new generation of bibliographers is failing to get training they need in English departments.

In the last panel, "Reception and Use," Paul Duguid offered a look at the competing narratives we often find ourselves considering, most particularly "information wants to be free" and the reverse, that there is so much information out there that it needs mediation and constraint. He offered up a wonderfully snarky and very funny critique of Google Book Search, noting their continued inability to deal with metadata, manage multivolume works ("because they didn't seem to know they existed") and the way GBS has "sucked out of oblivion some of the very worst editions" of classic books and put them at the top or near the top of their search results.

Elizabeth Long presented the final paper, presenting some anecdotal evidence from interviews with book groups, acquaintances, and SHARPists about adoption of e-readers and e-books. She reported that many of the people she talked to spoke about the permanence and sensuousness of print books, along with the difficulty of lending e-texts and the inability of having authors sign their e-books; on the other hand, people liked the immediacy, accessibility and capacity of e-readers. She said that readers seem to be mostly pragmatic about the future of books and reading; few of those she spoke to felt that books would "disappear," and that some felt that they felt supporting independent bookstores was one major reason they would continue to buy print books even as they also read books electronically.

The inimitable Peter Stallybrass closed out the conference with a vibrant sum-up, looking both far into the past and well into the future. He reiterated the finding that historically, new technologies have not entirely displaced old technologies, but that the forms have worked together. He also made the very important point, as Johns had also begun to at the beginning of the day, that we have to remember that "print" doesn't mean just books. Over the centuries, he said, only 13% of printed sheets have been destined for books - most of print is other ephemeral matter, and libraries are going to have to spend much time considering new ways to store, conserve and study these important things (along with the new things that are appearing and will continue to appear).

Finally, Stallybrass noted the ongoing Penn in Hand digitization project at Penn (by way of saying that digitization and hi-res images can be incredibly useful, but that at the same time they can also lead to new questions that require going back to the originals to learn more), and called on libraries to continue moving toward open-access and resist commercializing digitization efforts as a dead end that will not achieve the objective of making the materials widely available.

Overall this was a fascinating (and brain-filling) day. There were certain elements of the conversation that didn't make their way into the conference at all (what of the Espresso Book Machine and other print-on-demand tools?), and many were bothered by the use of "Kindle" as short-hand for all e-readers. I hope the conversation will continue on Twitter and elsewhere, and that the Radcliffe folks might consider follow-on discussions and meetings in the future. This was a good beginning, and it was extremely heartening to see so many biblio-folk there and have a chance to chat with them.

When the videos go online I'll be sure to pass the link along, because my poor summaries of these panels don't at all do them justice.