Robert Jackson on The Future of the Book and the Future of Academic Libraries

On October 28, Robert H. Jackson visited Kent State to give a talk in the Read Special Collections Classroom on the 10th floor of the Library on “The Future of the Book and the Future of Academic Libraries.”  Mr. Jackson is a lawyer by trade, and a recognized collector of books and tribal art.

Mr. Jackson argues that there is something special about the physicality of books, and what books mean to us that will help keep them around for at least another hundred years.  However, he admits that books are part of a technological process for the presentation and maintenance of words via text.  He charted his way through scrolls, codex, printed word, and the electronic revolution.  It’s the latter that he has some concerns about regarding the conservation of our textual archive in the future.

He bills himself as a collector of information–information that is inherently unstable and fleeting.  He catches concrete pieces of information before it’s lost and left to deteriorate.  The electronic revolution has problematized the collection of information for book collectors as well as library special collections.  First, there’s no longer manuscripts of creative works.  He noted that even John Updike has given up the typewriter for the computer word processor.  Obviously, writers draft their work in word processors, but the author has to be mindful of the writing process to produce files that would resemble what we consider manuscripts.  I imagine, more often than not, authors draft their work in one file or in chapter files, but the act of word processor writing lends itself to continual revision–subtle changes that are skewered for meaning by scholars but lost in the digital age.  Then, if special collections or a collector is presented with digital manuscripts, how should these be preserved?  What if they are on 320K 5 1/4″ floppy disks, or another difficult to read medium?  What about the rate at which computer storage changes–anything cutting edge now will be difficult to read in 5 or 10 years.  Another problem involves author letters and correspondence.  Most communication today is done by email, but there is often no special care taken in the preservation of these emails.  Furthermore, how should emails and other digital communications (think:  myspace, facebook, twitter, aim, etc.) be preserved?  

This problem of preservation is primarily one presented to library special collections.  Mr. Jackson has some canny observations about the trends in libraries and their special collections.  He views the library as the core or heart of a campus.  The library has its own gravitational field about which the rest of campus rotates.  It’s a place of learning–students and professors go there to work, study, and interact.  However, a shift occurred beginning in the 1990s where computers were used more in the library setting than books.  Now, we get the majority of our research from what he calls indexes, or perhaps more appropriately, databases.  However, I get his point that there has been a shift from the content to the proliferation of content indexing, and the use of finding where content is stored rather than delving right into the content itself.  

Coupled to this indexing is the recent move by Google to digitally store books online.  He believes that it’s healthy to make things available to a wider audience at all times.  What does this mean for the future of books and libraries?  He admits that books are only a stage in a progression of textual technologies, and he sees libraries as becoming even more dedicated to being places of learning.  He sees books falling to the wayside with the growing popularity of serials, which he admits has been a form since the 1500s, but they are undeniably growing in popularity, he says, because they don’t give you all the information at once.  At this point he gave TV programs and Star Wars as examples, but I would add to that the Web, YouTube, etc. He talks of books as having a reliability and authenticity, especially in uncertain times, that other media do not have, or I might suggest haven’t yet attained.  Also, he says that special collections will continue to grow and accrete more library space for the preservation of books.  With this being the case, he argues that special collections should assume a museum-like approach in which books are made available and the collections are displayed for people to easily see.  He wants to see libraries become a destination for people and families in the same way that museums and zoos are today–a destination of rare and valuable books with a “less rarified audience.”  He believes this will happen, because people want to see the real thing rather than a representation of the real thing such as on Google Books.  

This was an enjoyable presentation, and it helped me think more about some recent conversations that I’ve had with Mack Hassler regarding my own marriage/affair with books and technology.  I wish more literature grad students had attended, because this is important stuff for us to think about not only in terms of the shifting academic culture and job market, but with the very artifacts that we hold dear as objects of study.  As it was, I believe most of the folks in attendance were from the Classical Studies Department.  

After the presentation, I was beat and wanted to get home after a long day at the office, but I stuck around a few minutes to talk to Mr. Jackson.  While I was waiting, he told one well wisher that he was going to CERN this week for a private tour.  Apparently, Mr. Jackson has another hobby–quantum mechanics.  He talked about having a tutor so he would be up to speed on things before his trip.  I imagine he’s in Switzerland as I’m writing this–the lucky bastard.  Anyways, I did get the chance to talk to him on my way toward the elevator.  I told him about Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, which I thought was a critique of some of the very things that he said about the digitalization of books.  He said that he had read some of Vinge’s other stuff, so he would add Vinge’s most recent Hugo Award winner to his reading list.  I think he’ll get a kick out of it.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.