Professor of History at Harvard University and Director of Harvard University Library
Nothing presents text better than ink embedded in paper. When ink is fixed onto paper by a skilled typesetter, then bound by a deft bookbinder using fine leather, there is no better way of reading words than from a book.
A book can be thumbed for quick access to facts and knowledge. It does not need to be plugged in, booted up, or upgraded. It will not break down nor need repairing. It does not require an expert to operate. Old and young alike can access the power of a book. The book is the ideal shape for the human hand. On a dark fall night, as the rain lashes outside, a wood fire cackles, and hot tea steams by our side, we might curl up on an old couch with a good book in hand. Our eyes silently thank us when we read from paper rather than a screen that drills into our brain. When people are sucked into their iPhone or laptop, their eyes glued to the screen, there is a different atmosphere. Messages of little importance arrive from people in faraway places, while conversation dies and human relationships suffer. At this time God is forgotten, children are shunned, and a spouse seen as an annoyance. The “ting” of a new message, the buzz of yet another work email, the foolishness of a WhatsApp group conversation is repeatedly given importance over the people sitting in front of us. This is utter stupidity. Even reading something of supposed value from the screen has consequences. It too zombifies the reader in a way a physical book does not. The child that you are meant to be raising is ignored. Soon after this repeated neglect these saddened children learn to leave their parents alone. This is troubling.
Books have had extraordinary staying power. They have been a tool of learning for over 1,000 years and will continue to be so. However, over the past few years doomsayers have proclaimed the death of the book. The Kindle, the tablet, the e-book are all supposed to usher in a new era of reading from electronic devices, yet more new books were published this year than any other previous year: almost one million English-language books were printed. The true threat to books comes from an unlikely source—namely, librarians.
In 2013 in Birmingham, England, a new public library opened at a cost of £188 million. It is the largest public cultural space in Europe. One looks up at the wooden shelves circling the inner wall over six floors and feels as if one is in a Victorian Sherlock Holmes novel. The only problem is that visitors might find themselves thinking “where are all the books?” When the old library moved to the new library thousands of books were discarded. The vast majority were pulped or incinerated because they were old. A similar, modern-day book burning was held at various British universities, with students banned from liberating condemned books.
This trend is not new and not limited to England. It began in the United States in the 1950s when librarians began to pulp books at the nation’s best libraries. Yale, Columbia, Chicago, and large public libraries all enthusiastically pulped books. Yale willingly threw out 50% of her American History books, at a stroke ridding the United States of much of her cultural memory. During this time over one million books were pulped at a cost of $39 million—an obscene sum at the time. Ironically, the reason given by librarians for this butchery was that they were preserving knowledge. This justification was made possible by the invention of microfilm. Old books could be microfilmed, then trashed, giving libraries more space. This turned out to be an almighty mistake.
Microfilm has proved to be anything other than future proof. Despite initial euphoria, microfilm has turned out to be inadequate, incomplete, faulty, and frequently illegible. The film itself is frequently torn, shrunk, or melted. Technicians have missed pages or the focus has incorrectly adjusted. The microfilm machine might save space, hundreds of books might fit onto a single spool of film, but they are ugly and reading on them is torment. Some even had airsickness bags attached for readers with eyestrain-induced vomiting. Even the very worst book does not make its reader physically vomit. This promotion of microfilm has successfully rid American libraries of millions of books and is now an obsolete technology. It has created ridiculous scenarios such as the Library of Philadelphia trashing the complete run of the Philadelphia Inquirer, then buying it back on microfilm for $621,000.
Pietro Corsi is Professor of History of Science at Oxford University. Every year he tells his new undergraduate students to visit the Radcliffe Science Library to browse History of Science journals. He expects his students to look at whole runs of journals stretching back decades so they can visually see how the field developed. A few years ago his new students came to him complaining they couldn’t find any journals. Thinking that they were looking in the wrong place he marched from his office to the library, and was stunned to find all the journals had disappeared. Every last one. He soon found their new location. They were housed underground in a disused salt mine some 100 miles from Oxford. He was furious. He had not been consulted. He was told the journals were now available online, albeit for a hefty fee, and students could simply search for articles from their computer. They need never visit a library. Professor Corsi attempted to explain the impossibility of making links and observing themes in online journals, that the trajectory and development of a field could not be mastered from PDF files on a computer, but his plea fell on deaf ears. The librarians held the power. The barbarians were no longer at the gate, they were already inside the temple, destroying it from within. The lessons of microfilm had not been learnt.
Google Books launched in 2005. Backed by billions of dollars, their engineers decided to ignore 300 years of copyright law in copying 30 million books. They trampled over national and international law and ignored the financial implications for authors and publishers. Amazon has skirted the law with their offshore tax arrangements. While Uber, also backed by billionaire technocrats, shrugged off taxi licensing laws to launch an international taxi service. We seem to be entering a new era whereby a few individuals get obscenely rich and are above the law, while workers are increasingly treated like robots, until such a time that we have real robots. Then workers like old books will be discarded. The middle classes are not affected. But it will affect them soon enough and it will be of their own making. They allowed themselves to be seduced and willingly bought into their products.
Librarians from Harvard to Oxford and many places in between were enthralled by the promise of Google Books. They allowed their complete collections to be scanned free of charge. The original intent of Google Books was to scan every book in existence. These vast collections would then be sold back to libraries for a yearly subscription fee. Every library would have a Google workstation where books from around the world could be read. This sounded depressingly like a modern update to the microfilm reader. Fortunately, some people saw the danger of Google Books.
With the launch of its book service, Google had unprecedented data on hundreds of millions of individuals. It knew what books a person was reading, what terms within those books were searched for or highlighted. From this it was possible to know their interests and political and religious beliefs. Google had all the content of their Gmail account, even if the emails were deleted. It had their web-search history, their browsing habits, employment, their social circle, their text messages, their phone calls, their entertainment preferences. Through its sister company 23andMe it knows a person’s genetic make-up. In some parts of the world Google gained access to educational records. In other parts of the world, such as England, Google is actively trying to persuade governments to allow it to store all healthcare information, including the sacred, confidential consultation between doctor and patient. In yet other parts of the world Google is actively involved in causing revolution and social change. Their knowledge of a person’s private life is something that the East German Stasi could not have dreamt of. But this is an essay about books, and so one might think that Google Books would know something about books. The problem is they don’t. Not in the slightest. They employ thousands of engineers and not a single bibliographer. We appear to have reached an epoch in human history wherein geeks, with slightly autistic personality traits, are spreading their vision for humanity across the entire globe. We are all willing partners in this.
It was the Europeans who first started to object. The European Union placed limits on Google’s data storage, then rejected wholesale the Google Book project as not conducive to the public good, as it put unchecked, uncontrolled power into a single company’s hands. It pointed out that an individual has a right to privacy. It noted that under law, a corporation has a duty to make profit for its shareholders. Thinking back to the heady days of microfilm we remember that vast numbers of books have been lost forever. They were scanned then pulped. If we do the same with electronic or PDF books, and then Google decides in years to come that the project is not profitable, they can just hit the delete key and all those books will vanish for good. Or Google could become like Kodak and go bankrupt. Who could have predicted Kodak would vanish into oblivion almost overnight? Or they could be bought out by owners with new interests who do not value the book project. Who would have thought Amazon would buy out the Washington Post?
The European Union emphasized the unique character of real books. That they promote the free exchange of ideas, they broaden horizons, they transmit knowledge, they enrich individuals, families, communities, and civilization. Books preserve culture, memory, and history. They facilitate learning. They are future proof and accessible to all. They then compared this to Google Books. Google would have the right to censor, the right to restrict access, the right to delete. It would put the uncontrolled, autocratic concentration of power in a single corporate entity, threatening the free exchange of ideas via literature. Finally, it was pointed out that the hucksters of Google do not see books and libraries as temples of learning as the Founding Fathers did. They see books as data and content ready to be mined then profiteered from.
Inevitably a court case ensued. Google got away with scanning all the content of every book in breach of normative copyright law, but some restrictions were placed upon the project. Reluctantly, publishers reached a financial agreement, and Google Books are only accessible in truncated form online.
The argument for physical books still rings true. They are simply better than the screen. Better for children, better for families, better for our ruh. Sheikh al-‘Alawi once taught Sidi Abu Madyan’s words “You will never be a true slave of His when anyone or anything has the slightest share of you.” This might be applied to our love affair with technology, whether our desire for the latest phone or computer, our reliance upon its software, or our obedience to the “ting” of new messages. Increasingly it owns us and we are its slave. It steals our time and our dhikr. It affects our morals and colors our view of the world, making us anxious and depressed. The content and the constant updating of websites can be every bit as addictive as gambling or cocaine. And, as with these two drugs, the screen and its electronic leash of messages wrecks lives, wrecks children, wrecks families, and wrecks our relationship with Allah Most High. It mutates us into juvenile, feckless losers who complain of having no time to exercise, yet stare transfixed at the screen for hours. The solution is depressingly simple, though the addiction hard to break: get off the screen, switch off the phone, and just read real books. Visit a bookstore or a library. Head out to the mountains or the sea. Write by hand on actual paper with an actual pencil. Send a letter. Then learn to love your family, real life, and your Lord once more.