A Book by Any Other Name

Cushing Academy is a lovely and exclusive private school nestled in hills and valleys just south of Vermont and New Hampshire, off Rt 2 in the central MA town of Ashburnham. At $42,000 a year plus fees, it is clearly not for the children of us wage slaves. But it has just completed a transformation that raises interesting questions for us all us, a transformation which circles around that most basic of academic forms: The Book.

We take books for granted. We consume them in hardcover and in paperback. We find them at the libraries, and in brick and mortar stores, and online.
Amazon, that first great e-tail success story started its run with books. Books go to the beach, to the bath, and to the bed. We dog-ear the pages and highlight phrases and scribble notes and comments in the margins. A great Cape pastime is buying up 25cent and 50cent books at our perpetual yard sales and rummage sales.
Books pre-exist Cape Cod history, of course. Great libraries – Alexandria! – existed and the written knowledge was inscribed and stored in books for posterity. In our European culture’s timeline, the book’s history starts somewhere between 800 to 1300.

Books were produced in scriptoriums by religious workers and read by pretty much the only literate people at the time who were, uhm, religious leaders. These hand crafted manuscripts were often a work of art as well.

Over the next few centuries Europe reawakened from its slumber and as it did, secular topics and even fictional works appeared. The introduction of the printing press and the subsequent invention of the portable book by the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius and his business partners in 1495, coupled with growing literacy within the population, created a great shift in the meaning of The Book.

I can hear it now – part of the population can’t wait to get their hands on this new portable book introduced for the holiday season by those clever Venetians. Meanwhile, others are writing editorials and grouching that proper books should be copied by hand and be read in a library only. And then there’s a whole group who still don’t see the value in reading – afterall, if I really need to know it, someone will tell me directly!

Google has been working to digitize books, as part of its Google Books project. Google, along with various library partners, said that the goal was to ‘preserve’ some 10 million titles and make them available digitally. Many of these books are out of print (ie, no longer being produced) but still within copyright (ie, within the timeframe of intellectual property ownership).

The project raised to the surface a number of lurking issues like “orphan” works and some of the plain old inconsistencies in the print publishing system. The Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers, and a few others filed suit against Google in September 2005.

An initial agreement was reached in October 2008. This agreement was appealed, and a new announcement was expected this week. Announcement of the new agreement has now been pushed until next week. And who knows, it may be pushed back again.

Whether you think Google is doing this for a) the goodness of humanity and to preserve banks of knowledge that would otherwise be lost, or b)  to greedily to own all rights to profit from books, it ultimately doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that printed books are being turned into digital books. The Book as we have known it for the past 500 years is changing.

A few datapoints worth noting:

    * Amazon’s Kindle device has become surprisingly popular, despite the early naysayers. The Kindle is the first widely marketed digital book reader and Amazon sells both the device and digital book editions.

    * Analyst Forrester Research is projecting that e-reader sales in the U.S. will reach 3 million in 2009.

    * Bookseller Barnes  & Noble’s new ebook reader, dubbed the “Nook”, is being rolled out this holiday season. In early November that company reported that pre-orders were so strong the delivery date has slid to December 11 as its manufacturing struggles to keep up with demand.

    * Sales of Sony’s book device are said to be brisk as well, and Apple is rumored to be eyeing the market.

Digital content and tools for reading it are hardly new. But something about the transition of a book hits a nerve deeper than the transition of more ephemeral material. Somehow the loss of an issue of a popular magazine to the ether seems less scary than the demise of the paper book.

Books represent permanence. Having a book published is sort of holy grail for a writer. Forget that you, the writer, aren’t likely to make much bankable revenue from it – having a Published Book somehow makes you more real.

Our accumulated knowledge is stored in books.  Our earliest memories of learning are from pages of texts, often pages used by previous classes and marked with their memories as well.

There is no visual that makes as strong a statement for learning as does the library, with its tall shelves filled top to bottom with volumes that, maybe someday, one might have a chance to read.

I still remember with awe the first library that had moving stacks – the room was so filled with books that the shelves were fit against each other and a mechanical device separated them at the desired location so you could find the work you sought. For a book-deprived book lover this was heaven!

Google Books and the growing group of digital readers lack this visual punch. Yet they have the potential to make the book stronger and more vibrant. Instead of being hidden away, the book become more accessible. Instead of pages decaying with age, the material is preserved in a sharable format.

The students at Cushing Academy, like students elsewhere, are of an age where they are technology natives. Those born in the past two decades don’t have the same hardwired connection to paper page and to the paradigm of physical page turning that those of use born before the digital age do.

And that’s why the big shift at Cushing happened. The Library has been transformed: its printed books have been replaced with electronic ones.

In an NPR interview about this change, one student was quoted as saying that she loved the thought of the library and all its books, but she never went there. Now, that is it a sort of social learning center with all digital material, she is there all the time. She still loves the library, she says, but now she loves it and uses it.

Let’s say this again – this ritzy private school has replaced the majority of its books with digital works.
In PR speak, it says it has done this to be at the “forefront of a pedagogical and technological shift.” In other words, teaching and learning is no longer tied to Books-as-We-Know them.

A book is a long-term collection of information, knowledge, and human expression. We know and love the printed book because, well, it is what we know and love.  Being accessible in a digital form doesn’t make them any less books – it just makes them books delivered in a different form.

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