What price information?

We live in interesting times. In the purportedly Chinese wish this is more a curse than a blessing. Everyone who joins the Bodleian has to affirm that they won’t ‘kindle a fire in the Library’. That still holds, but now you can fire up your Kindle in it. If you can carry them all on a few Kindles why do you need the Bodleian’s vast warehouses of books? And what do established and venerable publishers like OUP and Elsevier, or booksellers like Blackwell’s and Waterstone’s, do?

History is full of doomsayers and prophets who attach special importance to their own times, be they as the last days or as pivotal moments in history. And of course there are really very few such dates. If we want to believe Sellars and Yeatman, there is only the one.

More than one pivotal moment  relates to how well we can transmit information. Not  content – just information. The bitstream. Your digital TV signal is just a bitstream regardless of whether it’s bringing you  King Lear or TOWIE. The first stage in our ability to generate bitstreams was the development of speech – which takes the information in my head and transmits it to whoever is listening. The next was the invention of writing, which lets my words carry across time and space. A third was the invention of printing – this magnified  many times over the quantity of information we could transmit, but was more one-way ‘broadcasting’ and expensive to do. (Despite that, you can argue that the explosion of knowledge resulting from the invention of printing triggered the Reformation and the birth of the modern world.)

The internet really is another of these once-in-an-epoch game changers.  It’s now easy for anyone in the world to communicate with everyone in the world. And we are in at the birth of it. There’s a story that around a hundred years after the invention of printing, one Italian scholar complained that at first printing had been a great advance, but now everything worth printing had been done and the new industry had descended into printing mere dross, entertainment and porn. (The founder of the Bodleian, Thomas Bodley himself, dismissed the contemporary printings of the works of dramatists such as Shakespeare as ‘riff-raff books’). Sounds familiar? People are saying just the same about how the internet has developed over the past twenty years. But at a very basic level the content doesn’t matter, the game changers are the capacity and reach of the bitstream of information. The internet multiplies these a millionfold.

Being World Book Capital would be a great  opportunity to bring the professionals – and others – together to think about these momentous issues and find ways forward that maximise the benefits, so this will be one of our themes. There will be a whole raft of professional meetings –of librarians, of publishers, of booksellers, of authors – going on during the year.  We can make these interesting times a real blessing.

One Response to “What price information?”
  1. “Everyone who joins the Bodleian has to affirm that they won’t ‘kindle a fire in the Library’. That still holds, but now you can fire up your Kindle in it.” – Brilliant play on words. Excellent article.

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