Ever since Johannes Gutenberg started playing with moveable type in the mid 1400s, books—physical, printed, bound books—have helped define individuals. Walk into someone’s home and see a glut of birdwatching books and you’ve got a fairly good idea of their favorite pasttime. See a nice, healthy, dog-eared collection of David Sedaris books and it’s probably fair to assume you’ve got a sarcastic wit on your hands.
Much like clothes, furniture, cars, hairstyles, houses and other physical entities that send signals about your political leanings, social standings, and general outlook on life, books provide clues to who we are—not just to the outside world, but to ourselves. And while other physical manifestations of our personalities are the definition of “surface” (studded leather jacket = aspiring street tough; khakis = business man etc) books easily allow for different interpretations and, ah-hem, readings. One person’s copy of “I Want My MTV” might be strictly entertainment while the next person’s might be serious cultural research for a PHD candidacy.
None of this constitutes particularly groundbreaking observations but it does become a point of interest when considering the vanishing physicality of books. Just this month the Encyclopedia Britanicca, printing for 244 consecutive years, announced it will no longer offer a print edition. It’s easy to see the argument that what is critical in tomes like encyclopedias is the information contained within, regardless of how that information is presented. But it’s also easy to argue that without a physical form—a container so to speak—all this information filtering through our various electronic devices loses some of its cultural impact.
In Richmond, California, Brewster Kahle, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of the Internet Archive, has acknowledged the importance of the physical object with the creation of the Physical Archive of the Internet Archive—albeit for somewhat different reasons. While Kahle is a lover of traditional printing, his concerns go beyond the container in which these texts are carried. As technology evolves, texts that have been scanned and uploaded could become illegible to future technologies. He’s also a believer of collecting as much of our cultural output as possible, whether that is “Spooktacular Crafts for Halloween” or “The Complete Works of Shakespeare.” Much like Bob George, proprieter of the Archive of Contemporary Music, Brewster believes you can never be entirely sure of what will become culturally important, so it’s better to traffic in volume as well as perceived quality.
So as we rush into digitization of our intellectual and cultural artifacts, it’s worth considering what that means, not just for how others might perceive us hundreds of years down the road, but for ourselves, today, in this increasingly clickable world.