Our relationship with print

Kazys Varnelis has a post today describing why he is giving up writing for print.

Let’s face it, a personal library is the academic’s version of an SUV. It’s handy for when you need it, but it’s big and unwieldy, a poor choice when it comes to ecology and not a defensible option in a world of limits except for those who really, truly need them.

He makes some excellent points about the inherent inequalities in access to books and to closed (for pay) online resources which I won’t repeat here.

There is also the ecological dimension, and while yes, sure, the “save a tree” argument is well known, if far from widely adopted, storing information digitally–particularly in the cloud, and especially over the long run–isn’t free of environmental costs. The jury is still out regarding the environmental footprint of power-hungry cloud-storage data centers and the toxic side effects of mining, processing and “recycling” the precious metals and plastics used in our perpetually obsolete personal electronics. I will leave the peak oil survivalism for another post, but there is something reassuring about books as a repository for information that will still be around even if our cheap electronics paradigm isn’t.

But Varnelis isn’t exactly arguing against books and libraries in general, but rather specifically about personal libraries and print-only journals. So is there room for city and university libraries as the book buyers and hoarders of last resort? Perhaps with print-on-demand such a model is conceivable, but the question of economics is something that Varnelis doesn’t address (and nor will I, right now).

Unfortunately, libraries don’t seem to see themselves in this role. With print journals in particular, libraries are increasingly trying to save money by canceling their print subscriptions and switching to online-only access. The problem is that members of the university community only have access to those resources as long as the library keeps paying their subscription fee. At least with print, once the library obtains the printed copy, they can’t take it away from you. I recall a class with Elvin Wyly (hardly a Luddite) exhorting us to go to the library and unshelve any journals we regularly read, in that way casting a vote in the library’s statistical analysis of reshelving rates the next time library administrators have to decide which titles to continue subscribing to. The other option, as Varnelis points out, is the hoarding (and sharing) of a personal PDF library, collecting all kinds of texts that might someday be useful, “just in case” you can never find them again.

Back in the physical world, I am left wondering if the cartographer’s fetish objects of maps and atlases have any more staying power in print form than the glossy architecture books that Varnelis must also still have in his library. Not that I look at my map books very often, either, sadly.

Finally, I find this an amusing post for Valentine’s Day. Varnelis doesn’t position his post in relation to V-Day, but it has me thinking about the love-hate relationship with books in romantic terms (manifested along simplistic axes: the logical practicality of the digital vs. the embodied, emotional affection for books; the rootedness and commitment a personal library demands vs. the giddy newness and constant infatuation of the digitally-enabled nomadic intellectual). It’s certainly more interesting than the endless stream of posts about heart-shaped maps coming from the cartography side of my blogroll.

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