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DIWK and The Survival
of Printed Books

by Craig Stark

#153 1 February 2011

A Bibliophile's Considered Opinion

I am a bibliophile: I love books. Most of you - I think I know BookThink's audience pretty well by now - also love books. We share this gladly. As bibliophiles, we are concerned about the survival of the printed book, not only because its departure, immediate or by attrition, will negatively impact our chosen profession of bookselling, but also because printed books enrich our lives broadly and profoundly in a manner that Google results can never.

But it isn't always easy to articulate why. The Digital Revolution has inspired much conversation about this, but most of it has been and remains focused on the interaction with books as physical objects - the feel of them in our hands, their aesthetic beauty as objets d'arte on a shelf, or perhaps the quiet, deeply receptive experience of reading text illuminated by reflected light, an experience that cannot possibly be replicated by the direct-lit assault from a blaring, pulsating computer monitor or e-reader (though Kindles have taken a first step to mitigate this).

As an aside, there's much I love about books as physical objects, but perhaps more than anything else, I love how shelves and shelves of books calm a room, absorbing all that's discordant in our environment and leaving a hushed, stilled space for contemplation. Try this in a library honeycombed with study carols and students pecking at keyboards. Plastic absorbs next to nothing.

Comparatively little conversation, on the other hand, has taken place about what books actually deliver - namely, content. That content can be delivered by many and various vehicles seems to be a near universal assumption. But is it so? Or - is it possibly so in theory but not yet so in practice?

First, here's an intriguing question that could be asked: "Can content even be separated from form?" My purpose here isn't to explore this; however, before moving on, consider the following cover art and ask yourself, "Does the experience of reading a novel by one of our acknowledged great writers change when it's stuffed into the lurid covers of a 50s MMPB?"

This aside, the central question, really, is this: Can content in printed books make the journey to digitized format and survive intact?

About mid-century, the acronym "DIKW" began to get kicked around some in the field of information science. Essentially, DIKW represents a hierarchical relationship among data, information, knowledge and wisdom: Information is defined in terms of data, knowledge, in turn, in terms of information; wisdom in terms of knowledge. (I'm simplifying shamelessly, by the way.)

Let's break this out in the context of what we're discussing - a book. Data, for example, could consist of, among other things, the title; information could consist of a description of its contents; knowledge an understanding of its contents - and wisdom whatever "truth" is awakened within us by this understanding. The DIKW of a book, then, is what could be understood as the whole shootin' match.

Now, consider the means of delivering a book's DIKW to a reader. If we begin with what may be the most common, present-day approach when we seek such things - a Google search of the title - what will this give us? This will deliver chiefly that which computers are best at delivering - information. Moreover, this information will most likely be delivered in small, quickly-consumed packets. Computers are good at this too!

But will it deliver the knowledge that this book, when originally conceived and written, offered to readers as an integral whole (and potential springboard to wisdom)? The knowledge that came by way of - could only come by way of - reading chapter 1, then chapter 2, 3, etc., building on what came first and later so as to ultimately arrive at an understanding based on all that was read? This is how good books get it done, by the way, and I'm not talking about dictionaries or pulp fiction. Any attempt to summarize a good book fails, even if it's attempted in a lengthy Wikipedia article. Computers are good at atomization, but atomization does nothing more than explode good books into bits of information.

This is not to say that a book can't be delivered as DIKW by way of something other than a printed and bound text. It's the text, after all, that matters vitally, not the form it ultimately appears in. So - suppose that a Google search delivers a link to the complete e-text of our book? Don't we then arrive more or less at the same destination as the printed book?

Maybe, but keep in mind that, in an e-book, we arrive at a solitary page, and our same keyword-searching mentality holds serve: The temptation to skip to other locations in the text is ever-powerful on this impatient planet, and a keyword search (e-books are decidedly not friendly to browsing), though it takes us elsewhere, may not take us to a relevant next place because all that is being matched is a word or two absent relevant context. In the meantime, it's likely that we'll skip over much significant material that a keyword search might never lead us to.

How is this different from our experience with a printed book? Vastly different, I'd say. In the case of a printed book, we don't skip about via searched keywords; we browse. Browsing, even if facilitated by a table of contents or an index, is a completely different animal because it looks for logical links between where one is and where one is going to. It makes sense, in other words, and browsing often tugs us back to where we came from if what we browse to isn't completely grasped. It invites embracing the whole.

This is still not to say that the printed book is the only effective form an integral text can be delivered in. It's just that computers, e-books and the like are at best poor substitutes, especially, if not most importantly, for the purposes of transmitting what I'm referring to here as "good" books - books that advance knowledge and nurture wisdom, our "K" and "W" of the shootin' match included.

There's more value yet in the printed book, and this is often overlooked: At this moment in time, printed books are the only proven means of preserving human knowledge. How do we know this? About 500 years have passed since the production of the first printed book, and nearly every book written during this time period worth preserving is still with us - and for the most part unaltered - despite countless book burnings and other, very deliberate, sometimes massively-orchestrated attempts to expurgate them or stamp them out.

We can't say the same about manuscripts, which preceded the printed book, many of which have been destroyed and/or altered over the centuries. Nor can we say the same about digitized text. Yet. Its "permanence" just hasn't been proven. Living in a world with a very uncertain future underlines this. Something as commonplace as a widespread power outage would effectively render e-books inaccessible, perhaps destroy them altogether, whereas printed books could still be read in the light of day, by candle at night. Lest you be complacent in your confidence that digitization is an effective means of preservation, have you had the unsettling experience of storing information on a floppy disk, going back to it at a later time, and not having the means (a floppy disk drive, that is) to access it? I have. I have even sat dumbly staring at my computer, floppy in hand, bereft that it didn't have an 8", a 5 " or a 3 " drive.

How quickly some things change.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the Wayback Machine (an internet archive that ambitiously attempts the preservation all posted web pages from 1996 forward) is that it doesn't go way- back at all and yet is routinely accessed by websites that have already experienced a loss of important information.

In some ways, also, digitization returns us to the dark ages of manuscripts. Speaking of Wikipedia, I or you could painstakingly write and post an article one day and wake up to something completely different, blithely edited by another user, the next. The same ease with which digitized text can be created extends to the ease with which it can be changed - hauntingly similar to manuscripts being altered by wayward monks in centuries past. But far easier yet today! Universal editing access is conceived to gradually improve text, but these improvements nearly always pertain to information and much less often to knowledge, which is far more vulnerable to adulteration and dilution.

Redundancy helps some, certainly; digitized books in multiple locations do stand a better chance of survival. But if anything is clear to me, we aren't yet at a place where an effective, proven substitute for the printed book has been developed, and, given the ever-increasing momentum of digitization, not to mention our head-first plunge into an access-by-keyword culture, is it likely to arrive anytime soon?

I'm guessing not, my fellow bibliophiles. And booksellers: Don't put the "Closed" sign on the door yet. I'm guessing we still have a few good years left in us.

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