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Passion for Paper

Passion for Paper
May 9, 2006

I am a digitally-enabled, network-ready scholar. I check e-mail and browse the Web. I read RSS feeds. I leverage Web 2.0's ambient findability to implement AJAX-based tagsonomy-focused long-tail wiki content alerting via preprint open-access e-archives with social networking services. I am so enthusiastic about digital scholarship that about a year ago I published a piece in my scholarly association's newsletter advocating that we incorporate it into our publications program. The piece was pretty widely read. At annual meetings I had colleagues tell me that they really like it and are interested in digital scholarship but they still (and presumably unlike me) enjoy reading actually physical books. This always surprised me because I love books too, and it never occurred to me that an interest in digital scholarship meant turning your back on paper. So just to set the record straight, I would like to state in this (admittedly Web-only) public forum that I have a deep and abiding passion for paper: I love it. Love it.

It's true that there is a lot of stuff you can do with PDFs and the Web that you can’t do with paper, but too often people take this to mean that digital resources "have features" or "are usable" while paper is just, you know, paper. But this is not correct -- paper (like any information technology) has its own unique form of usability just as digital resources have theirs. Our current students are unused to paper and attribute the frustration they feel when they use it as a mere lack of usability when in fact they simply haven't figured out how it works. Older scholars, meanwhile, tend to forget about paper’s unique utility because using it has simply become second nature to them.

Some of the features of paper are well known: Reading more than three pages of text on a screen makes your eyes bleed, but I can read paper for hours. You can underline, highlight, and annotate paper in a way that is still impossible with Web pages. And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets.

But my passion for paper is about more than preserving the sociological canon in a post-apocalyptic future. Using paper is embodied in a way that using digital resources are not. Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.

And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied -- we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us -- even the lab scientists -- with Ph.D.'s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations? Or our undergraduate libraries? I find books in my current library by comparing its floorplan with the layout of the college library where I first studied.

And catalog systems! I am a DU740.42 man myself, although I freelance in B2430 at times and of course retain a broader competence in G and GN. I was visiting a colleague at Duke once and went into its library to see what sort of GN treasures it might have stored away only to find that the library used Dewey Decimal -- a fact I experienced with surprisingly raw sense of betrayal.

The very fact that libraries can’t buy every book is a form of utility, not a disadvantage. True, there is tons of hubub about Web sites that provide users "personalized recommendations" based on their preferences and the preferences of people in their social networks. But in practice all this has boiled down to the fact that after years of using Amazon.com, it has finally figured out that since I enjoyed reading Plato's Republic, I might also be interested in Homer's Iliad. But every book in my library has been "filtered" by my librarian, and browsing through stacks arranged by subject allows "discovery" of "resources" in a non-metaphorical pre-Internet way.

At Reed, where I went to college, the library had a disused, musty room dubbed the "multiple copy room." Not surprisingly, it was where all the multiple copies of books were stored. The librarians at a small liberal arts college like mine did not buy 10 copies of a book unless they sure that it was a keeper, worthy of being taught for eons, its wisdom instilled into countless generations of students who would value it so much that they would weep when bartering their own copies of it for food and bullets after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse. Browsing through and reading from those shelves was the best "filter" for "content" that I ever had. So much for "the long tail."

And of course browsing doesn't just happen in libraries. Amazon may have a bintillion books for sale out in the ether of the ethernet, but there is no better place to take the pulse of academic publishing that a good used book store near a university.  Bookstores mark the life cycle and disposition of the community where they are physically located -- the end-of-the year glut of books dumped by students eager to rid themselves of dead weight like Anna Karenina in order to spend more time tinkering with their MySpace page is itself a good indicator of what a university has been assigning.

Bookstores also connect us to the larger scholarly community. Remainders -- books that are being sold at discount prices because publishers want them out of their warehouses -- are a remarkable measure of what fads have just passed in scholarly publishing or what is about to come out in paperback. And of course just being in a good bookshop can be therapeutic. A good friend of mine worked his way through college at a Walden Books. After work he would spend a half hour in the aisles of our local used book store, staring at the covers of Calvino novels until he had recovered from eight hours of selling people copies of The Celestine Prophecy.

The used book store is the horizon at which our human finitude and our books intersect. I have actually been turned on to the work of scholars based solely on the fact that I've purchased so many books from their collections. One book store I frequent actually put a picture of one recently deceased professor in the window to advertise that his library was on sale. Some find the practice morbid, but for me this sort of thing is the academic equivalent of the life-affirming musical number in The Lion King about how we are all part of the circle of life. Roscher and Knies costs $180 off the Internet and is scarcer than hen's teeth, but in that magical, electric moment that I found it used for 20 bucks I knew that in cherishing and loving it I would not only be honoring the memory of the previous owner, but perpetuating the hopelessly over-specialized intellectual lineage which we both cared about so deeply.

What I am trying to say is that owning and reading books is about our lives as scholars in a way that e-journals are not. Our libraries are furniture. They are decoration. They threaten the breathable air to paper ratio in our apartments and offices. Books spill over my shelves. They crowd my kitchen table. We are what we read. On my bedside I currently have one Hawaiian language textbook, Dan Simmon's science fiction novel Hyperion, Jonathan Lamb's Preserving the Self In The South Seas: 1680-1840, Eugene Genovese's Roll Jordan Roll and Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperable Community. In this combination I find elemental solace.

Our collections of physical, paper texts do not only help explain who we are to ourselves, they signal this to our visitors. When my guests first enter my apartment and make a beeline to my shelves they are actually learning more about me. When they admire my copy of Roscher and Knies I am learning something about them. When they spot my first edition of Ricky Jay's Cards as Weapons or Scatological Rites Of All Nations I know that I have found a true soul mate. I am convinced that this is somehow more important than finding out that the professor in the office next to me reads the same cat blogs that I do.

It is easy to see that paper will continue to be used by academics for a long time to come purely on the basis of its utility as an information technology. But we are not passionate about paper because it is a good research tool. We are passionate about it because of the way that it smells and feels. Our love of paper springs from the way it insinuates itself into not only our career, but our souls. This is why, after The Big Electromagnet Pulse, I won't be working desperately on some computer somewhere trying to resurrect my metadata. I’ll be fortifying the multiple copy room and trying to figure out how few copies of The Andaman Islanders I’ll have part with to keep alive until someone manages to turn the power back on.

Bio

Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.

 

 

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