The Bookless Library

Myth or reality?

It is a verifiable fact: we live in the age of computers.

Only a generation or two ago, few people would have had anything to do with computers. Those few were often revered and given high regard for their ability to use a computer, or at least find information in the vastness of a traditional library of paper-based books. Nowadays, everyone has taken for granted this humble piece of technology.

And with the internet available to nearly everyone, we are all virtual librarians in our own right.

So what does it mean for the library? Will the ubiquitous computer eventually replace all traditional print media in the future? And what will happen to the real librarians?

John Messing, a Senior Lecturer in Computing at Charles Stuart University believes the idea is a myth.

The belief in a paperless world

Messing has carefully researched many of the interesting ideas from important historical figures like Dr Vannevar Bush of the US in 1945 and some of the lesser known people like Ted Nelson in 1965 (1). What he has found was an obsession by men to have computers doing absolutely everything for us. The dream it seemed was to see the book and everything else in paper form become obsolete, where electronic documents are instantly created in their primary form — the digital data — using information accessed from any online source and then distributed from workstation to workstation anywhere in the world with the click of a button.

Presumably the point of doing all of this was to "reduce redundancy and increase productivity". (2)

However, Messing believes this is not the case today and that computers are not the solution to all our information needs.

The problem with computers

For a start, computers are creating more information than is absolutely necessary. Messing believes part of the problem is due to the way information is poorly presented in the digital format. The other problem is that people are sending all kinds of useless information that most other people don't really need to know.

What people are looking for are powerful tools to sort all kinds of information to get out that valuable piece of knowledge. Computers and the right software has the potential to achieve this.

In the 1990s, the bulky screen technology associated with computers together with how software and their costs can restrict the freedom of people to present information in the way they want is forcing people to go back to the traditional paper format.

In 2012, the screen sizes have reduced to pocket, or very portable, sizes such as the iPhone. Combined with storage capacities of compact flash memory chips and hard disks, it seems the problem may have been solved. Except for one thing, there are too many people, especially the older market, that still rely on paper to read everything, even for a basic email message. The reality today is that we are probably using more paper for printing things than we have ever done in the past. This probably explains why hardware manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the demand for printers.(3)

It is understandable. Paper looks abundant and is relatively cheap to buy compared to the cost of a computer; and it does not require it to be plugged into a wall or to use complicated keyboards to manipulate the information properly. All you need is a pen and then you can quickly draw and write all kinds of visual information on a piece of paper in a way that is more natural to how the human brain works. Or just press the Print button.

So much easier.

Nevertheless, a revolution is taking place as we speak. The younger generation are spearheading the push towards a more paperless society. It won't be long before a new generation of people will only see paper if it means archiving the most important works on paper as well as durable optical disks as a backup of our valuable knowledge. Everything else we see by way of information will probably remain in the digital format.

Only people can sort out the information

Until we reach that age of doing almost everything electronically, one of the biggest problems facing people today is how do we sort out all this information?

Too much information on paper

And what about converting existing books in every library around the world to the digital format? How long would that take? Even if we decide to digitally convert everything on paper using present-day technology, it would probably take centuries for the work to be completed. Just the shear volume of information would put an end to the great "bookless library" dream of those wishful thinkers.

As the highly renowned computer expert, Joseph Weizenbaum, has discovered:

"The information society that is so much talked about (I might add in parenthesis the service sector that we see growing in the United States) is in danger from increasingly incestuous floods of information; we have information about information which is in turn about information, about the organization of that information, about the hierarchy of that information and so on and, there is a real question as to what is at the end of it.

'There is a good German word which I'm afraid cannot be translated into English - 'quatsch'. It can be roughly translated as 'nonsense' and what we have is not an information explosion but a 'quatsch' explosion." (4)

UPDATE January 2012: The Fuji-Xerox DocuCentre-IV C6680 and other photocopiers are able to digitally scan at a minimum of 600dpi at more than 95 pages per minute. If we are prepared to partly destroy modern books by cutting off the binding, the sheets of paper could be feed into the photocopier relatively quickly and stored onto a folder on a person's hard disk as a single PDF document (and potentially with the text optically recognised to permit digital searching to be performed). Otherwise legislation should be introduced to force all publishers to supply a copy of all publications in electronic PDF format for all libraries to store and share to everyone after 5 years.

The computer is not the goal

Furthermore, what happens when there is a power failure? How will people find information in a library? By twiddling their thumbs and hope for a sign of devine intervention to help give them the information?

Messer's answer is that computers should be seen as just another tool for people to use for now and in the 21st century and beyond because the real aim of life is for people to achieve goals in the physical sense once the knowledge has been acquired.

He gives a quote from R. A. Grice in the 1989 article Online Information: What do people want? What do people need? in The Society of Text to help support his view:

"We must resist the ever-present temptation to use blindly all the new tools that technology presents to us [and use it exclusively over all other tools]. We must remember that tools are there to help us achieve goals; the use of the tools is not the end we are seeking."

While technology is not yet up-to-scratch and powerful enough to handle all the information needs of people, computers should be seen as just another tool in the information arsenal of the librarian and not yet the overriding tool to replace all books.

Still, the knowledge has to be stored somewhere, and made accessible in some suitable format. Unless we can train our minds to record photographically every piece of knowledge we see, our next best hope is to use computers and the latest high-capacity and fastest storage solutions available on the planet today.

June 2008

The state of technology is changing. As the environment degrades and paper becomes a more expensive commodity (unless enough trees can be grown quickly enough and old paper recycled), there may be no choice but for humans to eventually build the ultimate digital "bookless" library containing very thin, compact, durable and recyclable computers accessing a massive local, national and international digital bank of information as the solution to our environmental crisis.