Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Print is Dead; Are You?

Archivists have been grappling with the challenges of electronic recordkeeping for some time, and it is obvious that many operate as if they will always be dealing with paper documents. Jeff Gomez, Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age (New York: MacMillan, 2008), offers an interesting extended essay that is not the usual mix of technological futurism, basing his arguments on an insider’s view of both publishing and writing as well as a levelheaded sensibility of observations about what has occurred within the music industry. Many of his observations can be extended from books to the varieties of documents archivists and other records professionals are concerned about in their work, especially as Gomez shifts the focus of the debate about the future of the book from a pre-occupation with the artifact to the importance of content. Gomez joins with some others who believe that the shift to the e-book will help to keep a greater variety of books in print and to broaden the scope of titles being published.

Gomez does not promise dramatic, gut-wrenching societal and personal transformations. In fact, he acknowledges that the printed book will be around for a very long time. Gomez makes, instead, statements like “while print is not yet dead, it is undoubtedly sickening” (p. 3) and “books are indeed on the way out, while screens keep inching their way in” (p. 13). He turns to areas in our culture and commerce where we have seen dramatic shifts, such as the music industry, and extrapolates from there: “it is iPods – and what they’ve done to the music business – that may offer the best glimpse of the future of the book” (p. 15). This represents a generational shift, to a group of people who have grown up with the Internet and who are comfortable with working and living in the digital realm. Indeed, when Gomez considers what is happening with younger generations, he seems to make sense: “And so to expect future generations to be satisfied with printed books is like expecting the Blackberry users of today to start communicating by writing letters, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps” (p. 78). Still, one might wonder about how anyone can be optimistic with all the false starts with e-books and digital rights management, but Gomez believes it is just the matter of time before we achieve the equivalent of the iPod for digital books reading.

The concern with the purpose of books and that of digital surrogates takes up a considerable degree of Print is Dead. Gomez argues, for example, that “What should be remembered at all times is that the words compiled into books have a much larger purpose than to collect dust on shelves. It is ideas that matter and should be unleashed, not constrained by print” (p. 47). Gomez never discounts the lure of book collecting or disparages those who prefer to read books that are physical artifacts (although he does point out that the range of titles available in print is being transformed so that there will be a more modest range of titles available).

Gomez also sidesteps the issue of a decline in reading, noting that with blogs, e-publications, and other digital outlets, that there is more to read than ever before. He does suggest, however, that the decline in certain kinds of print-related jobs, such as book reviewing, may have led to some of the strident tones set in the debate about the future of the book. Print is Dead is worth a read even in the tired old printed version, reminding me of Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital a decade ago. Gomez makes you think, and archivists need to think a lot more about their own digital future.