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The ‘Information Age’: Current Misconceptions

One lament in the general apprehension about the onset of digitization takes the form of “The Death of the Book.” I have received so many invitations to conferences about The Death of the Book that I think the book must be very much alive. It reminds me of a favorite joke among publishers: Question: What was the world’s first book? Answer: The Bible. Question: What was the world’s second book? Answer: The Death of the Book.

I take this joke as a symptom of something serious—confusion from so much electronic messaging and information overload that we are suffering from a collective case of false consciousness. It’s no one’s fault but everyone’s problem, because in trying to get our bearings in cyberspace, we often get things wrong; and the misconceptions spread so rapidly that they go unchallenged. Taken together, they constitute a font of proverbial non-wisdom. Five stand out:

First, “The book is dead.” Wrong: more books are produced in print each year than in the previous year. One million new titles will appear worldwide in 2011. In one day in Britain—“Super Thursday”, last October 1—800 new works were published. The latest figures for the U.S. cover only 2009, and they do not distinguish between new books and new editions of old books. But the total number, 288,355, suggests a healthy market, and the growth in 2010 and 2011 is likely to be much greater. Moreover, these figures, furnished by Bowker, do not include the explosion in the output of “non-traditional” books—a further 764,448 titles produced by self-publishing authors and “micro-niche”, print-on-demand enterprises. The production of new titles in the U.K. has increased by nearly 40 percent since 2001. The book business is booming in developing countries like China and Brazil. However it is measured, the population of books is increasing, not decreasing, and certainly not dying.

Second, “We have entered the information age.” This announcement is usually intoned solemnly as if information did not exist in other ages. But every age is an age of information, each in its own way and according to the media available at the time. No one would deny that the modes of communication are now changing rapidly, perhaps as rapidly as in Gutenberg’s day, but it is misleading to construe that change as unprecedented.

Third, “All information is now available online.” The absurdity of this claim is obvious to anyone who has ever done research in archives. Only a tiny fraction of archival material has ever been read, much less digitized.  The vast output of regulations and reports by public bodies remains largely unpublished. Most judicial decisions and legislation have made it to the web but remain inaccessible to the citizens they affect, except for those who are willing to pay. Google estimates that 129, 864, 880 different books exist in the world, and it claims to have digitized 15 million of them—or about 12 percent. How will it close the gap, while production continues to expand at a rate of a million new works a year? And how will information in non-print formats make it online en masse? Half of all films made before 1940 have vanished without a trace. What percentage of current audio-visual material will survive, even if it makes a fleeting appearance on the Internet. Despite the efforts to preserve the millions of messages exchanged by means of blogs, email, and handheld devices, most of the daily flow of information disappears. Digital texts degrade far more easily than words printed on paper. Brewster Kahle, creator of Internet Archive, calculated in 1997 that the average life of a URL was 44 days. Not only does most information not appear online, but most of the information that once did appear has probably been lost.

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Fourth, “Libraries are obsolete.” Everywhere in the country librarians report that they have never had so many patrons. The 85 branch libraries of the New York Public Library system are crammed with people. They supply books, videos, and other material as always; but they also are fulfilling new functions: access to information for small businesses, help with homework and after school activities for K-12 children, and employment information for job seekers (the disappearance of want ads in printed newspapers makes the library’s online services crucial for the unemployed). Librarians are responding to the needs of their patrons in new ways, notably by guiding them through the wilderness of cyberspace to relevant and reliable digital material. Libraries never were warehouses of books. While continuing to provide books in the future, they will function as nerve centers for communicating digitized information at the neighborhood level as well as on college campuses. At Harvard, our libraries are full of readers who work simultaneously in the analog and digital realms. Widener stands as a symbol of the library’s place at the center of intellectual life in the university, and all of Harvard’s 73 libraries are now being integrated in a way that will adapt the system to the needs of the 21st century.

Fifth, “The future is digital.” True enough, but misleading. In 10, 20, or 50 years, the information environment will be overwhelmingly digital, but the prevalence of electronic communication does not mean that printed material will cease to be important. Research in the relatively new discipline of book history has demonstrated that new modes of communication do not displace old ones, at least not in the short run. Manuscript publishing actually expanded after Gutenberg and continued to thrive for the next three centuries. The radio did not destroy the newspaper; television did not kill the radio; and the Internet did not make T.V. extinct. In each case, the information environment became richer and more complex. That is what we are experiencing in this crucial phase of transition to a dominantly digital ecology.

With its 17 million volumes and extraordinary special collections, the Harvard Library is by far the largest university library in the world. Although its primary duty is to serve the students and faculty at Harvard, it is a national asset. We have a responsibility to the nation and to the entire world of learning as we realign its component parts to make a greater whole. In doing so, we will be guided by two years of intense study by various working groups, and we will steer clear of the misconceptions that could make us lose sight of our main objective—to make a great library greater and to help design the information landscape in a way that will serve the public good.

Robert Darnton ’60 is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library.

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