Column Editor: Jim O’Donnell (University Librarian, Arizona State University)
When I get carried away, I tend to blurt in Latin a little, but I’ll try to control myself. The news that we have a Librarian of Congress is very good news indeed.
Carla Hayden has been getting lots of advice, so I’ll just point to one subject and then dwell a bit on another. In 1999-2000 I chaired an expert panel (appointed by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences) that reviewed LC’s digital strategy and pointed the way ahead. The book we wrote (LC 21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress) holds up pretty well — almost too well, because too many of its recommendations remain unfulfilled.
LC has done too little to bring itself into the twenty-first century, and what it has done it has mainly sought to do alone. This can’t go on, mustn’t go on, and (I think) won’t go on. We — Americans and global citizens — need an American national library that both collects and makes useful and used the cultural product of this country and at the same time carries out its historic role as cultural friend and rescuer of imperilled languages and cultures around the world. LC needs to be a library first of all, and it needs to be a twenty-first century library that knows it can only flourish in full collaboration with as many partners as possible. I think we can be confident of progress on that account.
Here’s what I’m worried about. In various stages between the 1950s and 1990s, digital publishing was invented and took off. It became possible to have access to extraordinary cultural riches in digital form and — over the internet — ubiquitously. In 1981, I joined the Penn faculty and discovered that somebody had produced a digital version of one of the great best-sellers of the early middle ages, Pope Gregory the Great’s thirty-five volume commentary on the book of Job, a commentary about forty times as long as the book of Job itself. I was gobsmacked and made great use of it, for all that the display and searches were astonishingly (by today’s standards) primitive. By the mid-90s, you could get that text on the net. I still want to say, “Wow,” when I think what I had to do to read that book in print when I was in college.
Much has happened since the 1990s. Libraries spend well over a billion dollars a year on digital information for our users, and publishers sell to libraries and individual users what they are pleased to call “eBooks” — don’t get me started there. But we’re stuck now in a dangerous moment.
The vast majority of the print cultural heritage of humankind is not yet digitized. And much of what is digitized cannot be made widely and easily available to readers. An Ithaka study (Lavoie and Schonfeld, “Books without Boundaries” ) based on data now ten years old tells us that no more than about 18% (in 2005: less by now) of the contents of ARL libraries can be construed as old enough to be in public domain. Current material and best-sellers may be digitally available, but often in formats that are inferior in functionality and very unlikely to be preserved reliably. And behind that superficial collection of the new and the famous are the vast stack shelves of our libraries, quieter than ever. You know the story: lower circulation, less stack traffic, more off-site shelving with relatively infrequent recalls. And lots of people bemoaning the fate of the print book.
So here’s my two-part mantra. The print book has a long and glorious future in front of it; and that future depends on digitization.
If it’s 16 AD and you are a papyrus book in Rome, and you want somebody to be reading you 2,000 years later, you have two choices: get with the technology or get lucky. Getting lucky meant moving to Egypt and picking the right future archaeological site (the luckiest choice was the town of Oxyrhynchus, which was to Egypt what 1950s Philadelphia was to the U.S.): once there, you had to get yourself buried and hope that somebody would dig you up in a couple thousand years and transcribe you. It happened, but getting with the technology was the better choice. That meant getting yourself copied repeatedly from one generation to another in the format and media of the times. For most of the ancient books available today, this meant finding a medieval monastery with a lot of sheep, in order to provide you, the book, with sheepskin to get yourself written down on. The Name of the Rose gives you a good idea how well that worked.
What’s the equivalent today? We will preserve and cherish our print collections with great enthusiasm. But if we cherish them only as print collections, they will fade — no, sorry, let me correct that: they have faded already and they will fade more, very soon. For example, a 1930s or 1960s best seller novel (think Anthony Adverse or Oliver Wiswell or A Shade of Difference) now needs a digital avatar to go trawling for readers the way Pokemon Go players go after Pokemonsters. If there’s not a strong digital representation of a book, it’s flat out not going to be discovered, it’s not going to be read. If you’re Anthony Adverse, sure, you can be glad “Benediction Classics” has you in print; “Down East Books” is looking after Oliver Wiswell; and “Word Fire Press” has got A Shade of Difference. Do you feel lucky, book? Plan to be around another fifty years? Find yourself a scanner and a friendly person to turn your pages and push the button.
The digital representation of a book has its own chancy future. I know folks who think that onscreen reading is mainly for discovery, browsing, and specific searches — and a recent ACRL report confirms that seems to be how people are actually using eBooks. Maybe that will change and the ebook will become primary; or maybe print-on-demand will really take off. But if people don’t find books in the places they look — and I mean, in the palms of their hands, vying for attention with Picachu — then no matter how beautifully preserved the library’s print copy is, it won’t get read. The fate of print will be determined by our success in achieving massive digitization with business models that make the results available all along the long tail as cheaply as a 1950s song on iTunes. Or cheaper.
That’s where we need the Librarian of Congress. Copyright law is rebarbative and surrounded by lawyers in expensive suits who rarely have the interests of scholars and libraries at heart. Changing the law in positive ways is either difficult or impossible and there’s a real risk that if we ask for change, we’ll get change — in the wrong direction. But as long as the Copyright Office reports to the Librarian of Congress — and even if the profiteers succeed in snatching it away from there — the convening power of the Library can and should be used to bring to the table representatives of authors, publishers, libraries, and other stakeholders to talk about how to reach the goal that is now in everybody’s interest.
It’s in everyone’s interests to digitize our cultural past and make it available on reasonable terms. I think the stakeholder communities are on the point of recognizing this, and that the opportunity is there for the new Librarian of Congress to be our hero. If we don’t collaborate to make this happen, then a cultural moment will pass and we will lose our ability to summon the past to advise, guide, and console us. That would be stupid.