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The Future of the Book: A Harvard Library Strategic Conversation

A discussion with Georgetown's Jim O’Donnell and MIT Press' Ellen Faran on ensuring access to 20th-century knowledge.

 

September 30, 2014—Increased access to digital materials advances knowledge while presenting complex issues. In “The Future of the Book,” a Harvard Library Strategic Conversation, audience members discussed how knowledge has been handed down over centuries and how to ensure that copyright and technology do not interfere with the longevity of 20th-century works.

Panelists Jim O’Donnell, a Georgetown University professor and former provost, and Ellen Faran, director of MIT Press, spoke on the shift from print to digital, and the discussion was moderated by Ann Blair, Harvard College Professor and Henry Charles Lea Professor of History.

O’Donnell, a champion of new technologies in higher education, made the case that making books available digitally is the only way to guarantee their availability and influence. However, relying on proprietary, commercial formats from outlets like Amazon would be a mistake. Creating a reliable, stable, non-proprietary digital format with rich metadata to preserve and protect 20th-century culture is the collective responsibility of librarians, academics, authors, estates and publishers.

“Can we find a non-partisan, non-judgmental way to preserve and extend the reach of works from the last 100 years?” O’Donnell asked. Noting that 83% of library holdings are post-1923, governed by copyright law and on irregular platforms, he continued, “My fear is that one day, someone like me will stand a few blocks from here and say that when it comes to literature from the 20th century, you can just forget about it.”

Faran, who has considerable expertise in academic publishing, observed that digital has exposed a distinction between reading and research. “From the point of research, a book is a database and that’s okay.”

She shared a surprising detail about how researchers consume content: unlike with commercial publishing, print sales account for the majority of MIT Press sales. However, Faran added, numbers do not necessarily indicate success or failure of a title.  

“A book seeks to have an impact for a longer term. We want to provide a chance for it to be forgotten and refound,” she said. “Statistics don’t tell everything; preservation is key. Evaluating the impact of a book requires a long-term perspective about how it has advanced the field, and who has built on the author’s ideas.”

Concurring with O’Donnell, Faran said, “We are distributing high-quality content with extremely narrow audiences through lowest-common-denominator e-readers made by huge companies. There’s something wrong with this picture. We’re risking not preserving all those books that don’t become digitized in a transmissible way.”

Questions from the audience touched on the enormity of the task of creating a stable and universally accessible digital format, who would produce non-proprietary reading devices and how web-based content might supplant printed books. Blair and Faran ended the discussion with encouragement.

“We have only just begun,” O’Donnell said. “We should be looking for a way to convene that first meeting of librarians, academics, authors, estates and publishers to design a way to get this done.”

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