Michael Riddle's Thoughts » Blog Archive » A library without books

A library without books

librarysansbooks.thumbnailI read this Boston Globe article yesterday, and it got me thinking. Replace a place where literally hundreds of people can survey available books, read them, bounce between them – with a $12,000 cappuccino machine, net outlets, and 18 E-Book readers. What are they thinking?

The web has been an amazing thing. It is a great resource when you know the question you want to ask. It’s not so good when you’re trying to learn what questions you should be asking -and that is where books, and libraries full of books, shine.

farenheight451This non-book idea disturbs me. It may not be ‘Fahrenheit_451′ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are burned], but the difference between that and making them “go away” is one of degree, not substance. Someday, books may be an “an outdated technology, like scrolls before books” as James Tracy said. But not yet. There are still many issues with electronic books.
Reading well is a process that engages the mind. When I read, I’m immersed in the book.

Today, many young people don’t read. They have the word-parsing skills, but they see reading as a slow way of obtaining facts or answering questions. They prefer watching videos [they say they learn quicker picking up the context visually]. I find watching videos [or live lectures] restrictive. I’m locked into a fixed sequence of presentation. It usually takes much longer, and gives me less knowledge [but perhaps too many facts]. In that respect, it is much like a PowerPoint presentation – fixed sequence. Low interactivity. It becomes easy to let your attention slip. Electronic ADD, if you will.

We need to reflect on the difference between facts, information and knowledge. Facts and information are datum points for thinking. Knowledge is what we gain by thinking about them. Reading (in the larger sense) helps us gain knowledge. Reading is an active skill where we think about what we are reading. Real knowledge is acquired much like peeling an onion a layer at a time. As we read, we descend into a deeper understanding. This iterative process is what SQR3 [Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review] is about.

I learned to read well using the SQR3 technique. Essential to this is the first step – Survey. With a book, I study the Table of Contents, flip through the pages, stopping at interesting sections or illustrations. I build an overall picture of what is presented. Perhaps the book won’t be going where I wish, and I exchange it for another. [Remember the stacks of books on the table in front of students doing research?]

Today, I usually replace the ‘Recite’ step with Discussion. Many people have observed that their knowledge of a subject improves greatly when they try to explain it to others. I’ve found that doing so often helps me tie the pieces together, and it often leads to intuitive leaps in understanding.

When I read a novel, I expect it to move along at a pace similar to watching a movie – if it took me two weeks to read it, I’d lose interest or get distracted. When you read fast, a novel is more entertaining. On a screen, most pages are too wide to facilitate fast reading. Why don’t I re-size pages to fit a ‘newspaper column’ width? The ads and junk on the sides make this less than useful. And trying to read with animated ads for company is almost obscene.

I understand We’re at a weird point in time with technology. The E-book readers don’t have the visual clarity of paper, and they certainly don’t facilitate surveying a book. I know that in a few years, the visual concerns will be gone, and perhaps E-Books will be viable. I’m a bit concerned about reading one in the bathtub. What will US Customs do when I bring my E-Book reader back into the country?

What about privacy? Who has a record of my E-book downloads?

Which brings up another point. E-Books can’t be trusted to remain available. If I buy a book, I own it. I can keep it as long as I want. With E-Books, we have DRM. Recently, Amazon ‘recalled’ copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from reader’s Kindles. [They did not have the legal right to sell it, so they ‘unsold’ it].

DRM seems to encapsulate the idea that we never own our own copy of information ,we are just licensed for one specific use of it, and that license can be rescinded if the DRM License Server goes away.

I’m no Luddite. I like technology. I spend 8-10 hours a day in front of a computer screen. I program for a living. I love Google searches, Wikipedia, and online resources. The new forms of communication can be stunningly useful (as well as contributing to information overload). But I think both forms of information access have their strong and weak points.

I have often been frustrated trying to find again something I once found through a Google search.

Today, few people keep bookmarks. It’s easier to ‘re-Google’ than to scan a long linear [nested] list of text to find a link we want. But an item in last week’s top-ten might be at position 4000 this week. If the reason I’m searching for it is not to recall the exact information I first searched for, but rather to mentally ‘follow a link’ inspired by something else on the original page, I may never again find it.

A major problem people have with computers is they lose things – We are at a point where we now need and have desktop search tools, because it is very easy to lose things we cannot see. We need to realize that search is excellent for answering questions, but it is lousy for gaining perspective or surveying the landscape. Sites like Wikipedia really help here, but we lack a personal Wikipedia for our desktop.

One final point. Back in 1978, there was a 10-part TV series, Connections. It described our incredible (and growing) web of dependencies on technology. If we were to suffer a catastrophic loss, paper books might be one of our few available resources for recovery. It may be true of civilizations as well as apples – what goes up does come down. Just as we have seed banks, we need to preserve low-technology access to information.

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