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Coming to blows over books

When I walked into the classroom today, several of the students were already there exploring the second edition of Jane Eyre that our special collections librarian had brought up for them. This had really no relation at all to what I’d be working on, specifically, except that we were talking about context-building at a college level, and the second edition of Jane Eyre certainly adds a little to their context for the work.

What I hadn’t expected was that the professor had to tear the students away from a spontaneous but very heated debate over the importance of the book as a physical thing vs an intangible narrative. Does it actually matter if you hold a book in your hands? Is there something about that experience that matters? Or is it simply a waste of resources and space to go about printing mass quantities of things that could exist as bytes instead?

The most vehement ebook advocate raged against “self-righteous book smellers” while the greatest advocate for printed books talked about how it was important to be able to capture pieces of history not just in the text of the novel itself but in construction and display as well. At one point I threw a wrench into the “it’s economically unconscionable to ship printed material around” argument by telling them the 2 second version of ebook lending woes in libraries and the digital divide (I couldn’t resist). At another point the professor and I had to step in when things got heated to the point of ad hominem attacks. It’s pretty safe to say that I haven’t been involved in another class where the students were passionate almost to the point of blows.

What was the resolution? We decided that it’s complicated, that neither side is categorically right, but that self-righteousness doesn’t get anyone very far.

Pretty interesting for a totally peripheral 10-minute piece of a library session.

(My next favorite part of the class was the audible gasp when I said “Well, if I were getting started on this assignment [on the Great Gatsby and the Jazz Age] I’d probably start with Wikipedia.” Bwa-ha-ha-ha)

2 thoughts on “Coming to blows over books

  1. The ecological soundness of one format over the other is pretty much a wash. Sure, print books need to be stored in warehouses and shipped all over the country, but they’re printed on a renewable resource, are recyclable, and can be passed on or lent out. E-books require no shipping, but the readers contain heavy metals mined primarily in troubled countries in central Africa, are built out of petroleum-based plastics and strip-mined metals, are assembled in China and shipped around the world, require energy to operate (which in the US is generally created by the burning of coal), and mostly end up in a junk heap after a few years. If you buy lots of books (a few a month), the e-book reader comes out ahead in terms of greenness, but in terms of global ethics, still leaves a lot to be desired.

  2. Pingback: Around the Web: Scientists & social media, Radical scholars, Coming to blows over books and more [Confessions of a Science Librarian] | Digital Brain ; Science and Technology News

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