Books Magazine

5 Myths About the Information Age

By Andyross

5 Myths About the information AgeThere is a very interesting and thoughtful article in the Chronicle for Higher Education by Robert Darnton, the university librarian at Harvard University. Darnton is something of a contrarian on matters relating to digital-mania in the world of books and culture. I like what he has to say. Here is a short version of his myths. But check out the complete article.

1. “The book is dead.”  Wrong.  More books are produced in print each year than in the previous year.

2. “We have entered the information age.”  … every age is an age of information, each in its own way and according to the media available at the time…. No one would deny that the modes of communication are changing rapidly, perhaps as rapidly as in Gutenberg’s day, but it is misleading to construe that change as unprecedented.

3. “All information is now available online.” The absurdity of this claim is obvious to anyone who has ever done research in archives…. Only a tiny fraction of archival material has ever been read, much less digitized. Most judicial decisions and legislation, both state and federal, have never appeared on the Web. The vast output of regulations and reports by public bodies remains largely inaccessible to the citizens it affects. Google estimates that 129,864,880 different books exist in the world, and it claims to have digitized 15 million of them—or about 12 percent…

4. “Libraries are obsolete.” Everywhere in the country librarians report that they have never had so many patrons. The libraries supply books, videos, and other materi­al as always, but they also are fulfilling new functions: access to information for small businesses, help with homework and afterschool activities for children, and employment information for jobs… Librarians are responding to the needs of their patrons in many new ways, notably by guiding them through the wilderness of cyberspace to relevant and reliable digital material. …While continuing to provide books in the future, they will function as nerve centers for communicating digitized information at the neighborhood level as well as on college campuses.

5. The future is digital.” True enough, but misleading. In 10, 20, or 50 years, the information environment will be overwhelmingly digital, but the prevalence of electronic communication does not mean that printed material will cease to be important. Research in the relatively new discipline of book history has demonstrated that new modes of communication do not displace old ones, at least not in the short run. Manuscript publishing actually expanded after Gutenberg and continued to thrive for the next three centuries. Radio did not destroy the newspaper; television did not kill radio; and the Internet did not make TV extinct. In each case, the information environment became richer and more complex. That is what we are experiencing in this crucial phase of transition to a dominantly digital ecology.

Darnton goes on to talk about the ways that the activity of reading is changing in the electronic age. He’s an informed and realistic optimist. We could  use a little more of that right now, when so many people (myself included) have been saying that the sky is falling.


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