“Electronic Book” — this hopeful neologism neatly captures the sheer scale of change sweeping through the library world today. The term of course refers to a burgeoning product sector that includes everything from CD-ROM-based textbooks to interactive children’s literature, and even digitized versions of popular novels. But there is more to “electronic books” than a mere new medium; the term’s currency is a powerful indicator of just how text and electronics will co-evolve, and what surprises the result holds in store for libraries.
In fact, the very inaptness of the term, “electronic book”, is itself an important indicator. Apart from using text, the electronic books introduced to date are anything but book-like. The quality of the electronic images is horrendous compared to a traditional page, and–more importantly– the experience offered is fundamentally different from anything offered by traditional print. This latter aspect holds an important clue regarding the trajectory of digital media. Our new media will not replace existing media directly; rather, they will penetrate into our lives by offering experiences that traditional print does poorly, or cannot do at all. Reading The Tempest on-screen is pointless and annoying, but imagine an interactive presentation of the text that included seamlessly integrated explanatory notes, historic references, and the opportunity to view video snips of famous Shakespeareans reading or acting out the relevant portions of the play.
Of course we will do more than merely revive old greats. The term “electronic book” is misleading because these products are not books at all, but something new. We are living in a moment between two revolutions: one of print, four centuries old and not quite spent and another of electronics, two decades young, and just getting underway. Today’s products amount to a bridge between these two revolutions, and the term’s historic associations are helping us through a mind-bending shift in much the same way that “horseless carriage” once eased our grandparents into the age of the automobile.
This shift will seem more evolutionary than sudden. Just as practical automobiles lay decades beyond the first horseless carriages, it will be some time before our new electronic books evolve into something that even begin to approach the the sophistication and subtleties of traditional print. Traditionalists will howl at the vulgarity of it all, much as fans of manuscript writing shuddered in the late 1400s at the ugly and untrustworthy monochrome works to come off the earliest presses.
The 1400s traditionalists would also instantly recognize the texture of current events. It is an age of electronic incunabula, with the new media unfolding much as they did between Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type the 1450s, and Aldus’ publication of the first modern book in 1501. Recall that the very first books off Gutenberg’s press were slavish imitations of what scriveners produced by hand. Just as plasticÕs inventors first struggled to make the stuff look like wood and tortoise shell, print’s pioneers worked to conceal the novelty of their new books even as they struggled to discover its power to touch the heart and the mind. Now a new generation of digital innovators are on a similar quest, attempting to tame raw new technologies into compelling new media.
And where do libraries fit? Frankly, in the short run, their role is marginal, for this is a revolution being shaped by individuals and not institutions. But in the long term, the advent of burgeoning digital media will utterly reverse the role of librarians, from that of hoarders of scarce fiber-based information, to filterers and sense-makers of hyperabundant digitally-mediated works. Libraries will be all but unrecognizable a few decades from now, but in their new role, they will be even more central to our lives than now.