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Guest Post: Pius Charles Murray on the Next Decade in Book Culture

By Pius Charles Murray

As we wind down the “aughts” decade, with digital books galore on the horizon (and the $195 Norton facsimile edition of C.J. Jung’sobjet d’art/culture The Red Book selling out around the country), the NBCC seeks the best guest posts about the future of book culture, including essays,interviews and free-range opining. The topic: How do you see book culture evolving over the next decade? Pius Charles Murray offers these thoughts.

“A legend clings to every stone.” So Lucan explains Julius Caesar’s wonder at seeing the ruins of Troy in Lucan’s First Century A.D. book describing the Roman Civil War, which description may aptly be applied to every book published and every library constructed (Lucan, cited in Manguel, 2006, p. 14). According to Alberto Manguel’s magisterial mediation on the importance of libraries (and, by extension, to the information collected therein in every conceivable format) to human civilization, titled The Library at Night, there are in Western Civilization at least two possible human endeavors in accumulating knowledge. On the one hand, the Tower of Babel (cf. Gen 11:1-9) serves as a cautionary metaphor of exclusionary tendencies; the moral of the biblical narrative is that God oversaw the introduction of many different languages so that human beings would not overstep their power or authority in cosmic affairs due to their hubris. On the other hand, the ancient world’s most famous library, the Library at Alexandria in Egypt, constituted an inclusionary approach. Founded by the Ptolemaic successors of Alexander the Great near the end of the Third Century, BC, its purpose was to collect for safekeeping for posterity all then known human knowledge. In the so-called Letter of Aristeas (which may have been apocryphal), King Ptolemy I requests from every government on earth books of every kind by “poets and prose-writers, rhetoricians and sophists, doctors and soothsayers, historians, and all others too” (cited in Manguel, 2006, p. 22). It was a tribute to the intellectual curiosity of humanity as it collected, organized, kept in memory the contributions of the past, and, by its existence, provided for future learning.

There are several would-be successors to the original Library at Alexandria which burnt down around 47, BC for unknown reasons. In 1988, the Egyptian government constructed a new library at Alexandria which cost approximately $220 million USD and is large enough to house 8 million volumes: print as well as audio-visual materials. Its raison d’être, however, does not attempt to reduplicate the all-encompassing mission of the original Library. The World Wide Web has also spawned some attempts at collecting and organization information. One of the weaknesses of the WWW on the whole is its ephemerality; fully 70 percent of the various types of communications found on the WWW last no longer than four months (Manguel, 2006, p. 28). Philosophically, then, the WWW offers a continuous present. By way of contrast, for its patrons, the Library at Alexandria provided (as do libraries and books today) a present window to the past that through the act of reading and synthesis opened up new vistas, new knowledge for the future.

Currently, Google is most active in digitizing items for World Wide Web access. The company does not publicly release the number of items being digitized. However, The Economist (2007) guesstimates based on information provided by Google’s Daniel Clancey who heads the book digitization project that the company may be able to digitize approximately ten million books per year out of an approximate number of sixty-five million total in existence. Google’s digitization project has partnered with the libraries of a baker’s dozen academic institutions as well as a number of publishers (The Economist, 2007). The goal of the project is to provide an enhanced library catalog-type record on the World Wide Web (cf. The basic entry for all items will include bibliographic information just as a library catalog would. For items that are out of print and in the public domain, a customer will be able to download the entire book. For those items still under copyright, links to various bookstores from where it may be purchased are included (cf. According to the Google Books Library project webpage (cf., the purpose of the project is to make accessible otherwise hard-to-find books; matching the right book to the right person at the right time is intended to help create a new generation of readers.

 However, it is not the only such project. The Internet Archive (cf. which was founded in 1996 by Brewster Kahle in San Francisco, CA now offers free access to more than 80 billion URLs archived on its online Wayback Machine website (cf. Working with the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), state and academic libraries, and archives, the Internet Archive is creating a more organized thematic or institution-based search engine through its Archive-It project (cf. that as of 26 December 2009 had almost 1.3 billion URLs for 898 public institutions. In addition, the Internet Archive is also participating with local libraries and other cultural institutions in performing community archiving that will preserve news about important unexpected events (e.g. the 2004 Asian Tsunami Archive and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina Archive Collection). The software being used is open project software available either at Heritrix Archive Crawler,, or Internet Archive’s archive access pages, With a grant received from the Mellon Foundation in 2007, Internet Archive launched its Around the World in 2 Billion Pages Collection (cf. Other entrants into the book digitization process include, Microsoft, and Yahoo! (The Economist, 2007).

Digitization has led to the inevitable question: whither books in printed format? Clive Thompson (2009) argues that the publishing industry’s retention of books in print format represents a business decision based on the industry’s fear of losing control over content. As Thompson says, the publishing industry doesn’t want the content of its books to be “Napsterized” (Thompson, 2009, ¶ 3). Financial retrenchment, layoffs, and mergers, all constitute efforts designed to respond to declining profits. Furthering complicating matters for printed books is the reality that the younger generation from infancy has had its senses assaulted by videogames, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and various other multimedia formats (Thompson, 2009).

Yet, if the publishing industry embraced the possibilities offered by the new technology, new readers if not new books could be fostered. Web 2.0 technology allows for and encourages interaction between information givers and receivers. (cf. already does that. Its menu includes headings offering options such as what to read (ebooks may be purchased online on the site), chatting about books, commenting on books, and looking inside books (cf. It has on its main page a YouTube video that describes the various activities in which one may engage on the website. Some ebook readers (such as the’s Kindle, Palm OS devices, etc.) are also compatible with’s audiobooks.

Technology today is fast developing the ability to move beyond taking notes on an ebook. Under development among bibliophiles is an XML language that would permit individual parts of a book (down to the paragraph or even word) to be linked to what others are saying (Thompson, 2009). One could select a few favorite sentences from one’s favorite novel, or short story, play, or poem then link it on one’s social network page. Since word of mouth (metaphorically speaking) is one of the most effective ways to promote a book, this technological use could spawn what readers term “book discovery” (Thompson, 2009, ¶ 9), creating new lifetime readers and new purchasers of books in print.

 As I look at the circulation statistics of the Houston Public Library System where I work, I notice that while attendance has increased substantially (as it almost always does during a recession when many customers come to use the free public computers to look for jobs), circulation statistics are also increasing. This is testimony to the continued importance of books in our culture as Alberto Manguel points out in his highly recommended reflection on libraries that was discussed in the first paragraph. There will always be a percentage of the population that reads, even if as Gore Vidal has argued in some of his essays that there are now fewer readers and as statistics from the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2007 report To Read or Not To Read confirm that Americans are reading less and reading less well. When one compares reading across different technologies as I have done by reading printed books, ebooks, and listening to audiobooks, one is able to see the strengths and weakness of each. If one is like me, one will still prefer the printed book for a number of reasons: one can turn the pages back and more easily re-read a section which allows in this author’s opinion more interaction with the ideas presented; furthermore reading is a personal experience in which all five senses play a role. Reading a printed book offers more and better tactile experiences which contribute to a more holistic – and better — reading experience. However readers read they should see that every book contains its own legend, that every book is its own universe.


The future of books: Now that books are being digitized, how will people read? (2007, March 23). The Economist. Retrieved 26 December 2009 from

Manguel, Albert. (2006). The Library at Night. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Thompson, Clive. (2009, May 22). Clive Thompson on the Future of Reading in a Digital World.

Wired Magazine, 17 (6). Retrieved 26 December 2009 from