Learning, the act of gaining knowledge, is a craft unto itself. It starts with questions - the what ifs, how abouts, whys, . . . leading from the unknown to the known, through inquiry, experimentation, travel, and of course pure accident.

This is about how it happens in my life.

Books: antique technology for a new age

A blog post on Information Today recently posed the question: is the future of books and libraries intertwined? 
The question frustrates me in the same way that the never ending pursuit of some word other than Librarian frustrates me: it is a false problem, scattering our focus away from what I think are more useful ponderings. Surely the question is rhetorical (“no, they are not!”), and therefore of limited use in discussing what the next incarnation of Libraries might look like. 

If we were to consider the relationship between publishing and Libraries, well, that would be a much more fruitful discussion. 

It provides us a broader, and I believe more appropriate field of inquiry.  As much as the book came before publishing, the advent of publishing (via printing technology) changed the role of the book forever. It was no longer a rare item of great value representing human artistry and skill, but rather the artifact of a mechanical process that enabled the broader transmission of ideas.   Libraries are about what's between the covers; Librarianship is about getting at the knowledge, whether it is found in a printed book or otherwise.  

I took a course on publishing during my MLIS studies at U of A. It simply made sense to me that I should understand an industry and process that is so fundamental to the work of Librarianship. I grew into Librarianship just as Google was getting started. Web search had been around already for a number of years, and of course electronic databases had been a mainstay of Librarianship for decades. We considered the antecedents to the publishing environment in the late 90s, pondered the future.  I doubt anyone in that course could have accurately foretold the extent to which electronic access to content would take hold: Google barely existed; the thought of Google Books within a decade would have seemed audacious.

Despite the News Corp and McGraw-Hills of the world, publishing generally is not a high margin industry. Navigating the fickle and changeable marketplace of ideas has always been difficult. It has its quirks, as do most industries. For instance, the handling of remainders: unsold titles sent back to publishers from retailers, ensuring the publisher faces the responsibility for a misjudging demand.

And As Andrew Pettegree notes a number of times in his fabulous tome The Book in the Renaissance, it has always been this way. The publishing industry, not just of books but of pamphlets, legal notices, and newspaper broadsheets, all of it emerged very directly from Gutenberg's revolutionary invention in the mid 15th century.  Publishing, after all is the process of deciding what to print, and how many; and then investing considerable cash outlay against unpredictable future earnings.  Presses were expensive to set up; recouping this investment by printing saleable materials was essential.  Gutenberg was the first of many printers to learn the hard way, facing financial ruin because of publishing decisions gone awry.
Pettegree's Book is a delight to read. I am life long bibliophile, and still prefer paper to a screen.  To the extent that I discovered this book while snaking through the stacks at my local TPL branch in search of serendipity, it is entirely possible I would not have read it otherwise.  
what to do when a book gets stickynoteitis? or is it sticky note plague?

Having said that, The Book in the Renaissance sheds light on the publishing environment today.  The early printing industry faced many hurdles, not least of which was availability of paper. The absence of linen or other appropriate rags for paper production in Northern Europe slowed the spread of printing establishments, as importing it was prohibitively expensive. 

It equally gave me tremendous appreciation for the realities of publishing today. As publishing and the trade in ideas developed, it did so based on which ideas sold the best. Despite the humanism of the day, the spread of the printed word was driven purely by economics. The best selling titles, then as now, were not of an intellectual bent. Printing succeeded at centers of trade, not university towns. 
And with good reason, as there was certainly money to be made. As early as 1466 the value of stock of a Paris book merchant was equivalent to the annual income of a leading nobleman of France. Keep in mind, however, these books were unsold.
Many more printers and publishers failed than succeeded in the first 400 years of our relationship with the book; there was similarly halting success in the emergence of formal or institutional Libraries.
Ultimately the humanist ideals were achieved via the market place anyway. If looking for causality in history, here's one that seems quite clear to me:
Following the development of the movable type printing press, printing indulgences became a significant source of steady income for printers; indulgences were easier to print therefore it was easier for the Church to use them to raise funds; it was abused enough to provoke the ire of one Martin Luther who in turn used the same technology, but in the vernacular, driving a wave of literacy and increased demand for reading materials in addition to tremendous religious upheaval and a wave of exploration and discovery. 

Hmmm  . . . accessible materials and a captivating idea drove the early spread of literacy. Interesting. 

Every industry has it's cost drivers, some primary element without which the industry does not function. Beyond basic start up costs, for printing and publishing the main driver was  the cost for the paper itself; experienced workers would also factor in, with compensation for content developers being a mere blip in the overall scheme. 

Only very recently have content developers become a more significant cost driver, resulting from a combination of international copyright, and growing demand for materials of all kinds,  educational or otherwise. Now, of course, content is king. Creators of content command significant sums of money to share their thoughts with the rest of the world, be it via a best selling novel, investigative journalism, research and advice from consultancies, or a blog.  Just as the cost drivers have shifted, so have the conditions around codifying and sharing knowledge: 
the physical barriers to production represented by an older information technology ie a book are replaced by technological barriers to access in the newer information technology.
Clearly the printed word is still with us, still instrumental in facilitating the sharing of human knowledge and experience. The legacy of the book, of print and publishing will live on: not every idea survives.  Just as always, content has to be findable, has to be accessible, has to captivate and drive us forward. Just as always we will need some kind of technology to enable access.  For millions of people around the world, including me, this will happen at and through our Libraries. 



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