Voices From The Past Reflecting On The Future (Number 3): Melvil Dewey & Our Book Fetish

February 19, 2014, 4:29 pm

Melvil Dewey needs no introduction. He is a household name and probably the most famous librarian ever… after Nancy Pearl. Much as been written about Dewey’s accomplishments as well as his scandals, but today I wanted to share a quote from a talk he gave at ALA Annual in 1926. Charles Beldon, who I profiled earlier in this series, invited Dewey to imagine the next fifty years. This is what he had to share: Out Next Half-Century

“Most librarians are inclined to make a book something sacred. But we ought to recognize and employ it as a tool to be used not a fetish to be worshipped. Perhaps the library of fifty years from now will have outgrown the present book and relegated it to the museum with the older inscriptions on clay. Our great function is to inform or to inspire, or to please; to give to the public in the quickest and cheapest way information, inspiration, and recreation on the highest plane. If a better way than the books is found we should use it.”

When I first encountered this I immediately thought of the current print vs. electronic debate. Are eBooks superior? They take up less space. They are easier to share, technically. You can customize font, text size, and sometimes layout. You can copy and paste content. You can embed multimedia. You can simultaneously search across multiple books. You have instant access everywhere anytime.

message-kindle-installOf course there are disadvantages—beyond the need for electricity. For me the main one is the user experience. Some platforms are better than others and unfortunately many of the scholarly ones do not compare to the level of ease that Amazon provides with Kindle, or for that matter, print. That’s my opinion, but I’ve also encountered more than a handful of faculty who want to use eBooks but ran into problems with scan quality or simply poor (unusable) interface design.

And then of course there is the issue of ownership vs. licensing. As well as the matter of preservability and future access:

“Adobe has issued a proclamation that starting in July, the vast majority of e-reader apps and hardware devices will not be able to read purchased eBooks anymore.” Adobe killed e-readers.

These are obviously critical issues for our profession and for our stewardship of the intellectual record. But the more I reflected on Dewey’s words I realized that this wasn’t about print books vs. eBooks at all. Electronic books are just an incremental improvement; they are a step along the way.

Dewey is challenging us to rethink the entire way that knowledge is packaged. He is talking about platform. He is warning us not to be obsessed or perhaps more accurately, satisfied, with the book as a format. He wants us to aspire to make it better. This is a very invigorating thought-stream that encourages some lateral thinking. It removes us entirely from the print book/eBook debate and reframes the conversation around the idea of what could replace them both? Dewey is advocating for the user and reminding us to focus on our mission and not on merely collecting books.

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