- MovingThe Transom
The nine-storey building housing my academic department and several others was, as of January 2011, and depending upon whom you believed, either on the verge of collapse or merely in need of structural tweaking. In any case, we faculty were told to clean out our offices and leave the building by the second week in May. My office contained thirteen seven-foot bookcases filled to overflowing, five file cabinets bulging at the seams, and a desk so laden with paper that its surface had not been visible for years. So, during the next four months, I sorted, packed, hauled, and stored approximately two tons of printed matter, four or five cartons at a time, despite warnings issued by Mother Nature and Father Time that I should hire it done before I hurt myself. Well, not on my salary, quoth I, hyperextending this and straining that but, mercifully, tearing or breaking nothing. Some of my colleagues found my labours quite amusing, because, I gather, they are minimalists in the matter of book ownership. Inasmuch as the books in my office were overflow from home, I suppose I must qualify as a maximalist, tending to behave in bookstores like a boozer in a brewery. I shall not, however, take twelve steps or make amends for any of it.
The experience of moving the contents of my office did bring a certain enlightenment: I was considerably less than halfway through my labors when it occurred to me that e-books possessed a virtue that I had not appreciated fully theretofore, namely, that they weigh only as much as the gizmo upon which they are read. No wonder librarians admire e-books so much. Clear out those shelves and the unhandy arte-facts that have so long sat upon them, load up on e-books, install a plenitude of servers, and pretty soon every library in the world will be the biggest library in the world. No need to re-shelve anything. No need to catalogue. No need to know the alphabet or LC numbers or what to do [End Page 243] with Melvil Dewey’s decimals. No more dust allergies. No risk of hernia. Library science lives up to its name, and never mind that the adoption of e-books will add thousands of librarians to the unemployment rolls. Progress necessitates obsolescence, I reckon.
Then, still packing cartons, I began to wonder about the particulars of e-research in e-books. What if I needed to compare, say, five e-sources? Would I have to examine the materials in sequence? Would I need access to five e-readers? Is there a device allowing five e-pages from five e-sources to appear legibly on the same screen at the same time? So many questions. And so few answers, even from young colleagues who, chronology suggested, should know about such things. Indeed, one of them remarked to me (while I was yet hip-deep in books, bubble wrap, and build-’em-yourself cardboard boxes) that it might help to think of those who embrace e-books as members of something resembling a cargo cult.
“Holy cow!” I thought. “John Frum Kindle? A continually anticipated airlift of digital goodies to an expectant and ever-hopeful population?”
What, in point of fact, had I heard about e-books? A great many discouraging things, that’s what. An anthropologist told me that e-books don’t have page numbers or indices, and that if you wanted to look for something you’d read yesterday, the odds were that you wouldn’t be able to find it today. A colleague told me that a book he’d written as a collateral text had been issued as both a paperback and an e-book. The virtue of the e-manifestation apparently lay in the fact that students could download it to all sorts of gizmos, and once they’d read it, they had only to push a button and, poof, it was gone.
(I could see a new student excuse looming on the horizon. I’d already heard–several times—the one about a malfunctioning computer and/or printer, invoked...