THE INFOHOLIC: A Bundle of Pages Stitched on One Side
photo: Horia Varlan, flickr, CC BY 2.0 license

A Bundle of Pages Stitched
on One Side

BY Jarosław Lipszyc

It’s time to stop talking about books and start talking about text. The book is a medium, a content carrier

2 minutes reading left

For over a decade the book world has resisted digitization. Authors, publishers, booksellers, and librarians pretended they didn’t see what was happening in the other sectors of culture and continued to print books like they did a hundred or five hundred years ago. When a decade ago, the music market changed into a service market due to the introduction of MP3 technology, everyone repeated likemantra that nothing would replace paper. When newspapers saw dramatic declines in distribution due to the rise of online news sites, the consolation formula was that reading books on screen was inconvenient. Now the TV has gone digital and sites such as YouTube successfully compete against cinema and video rental stores for our free time. Book people have begun waking up to the fact that the book – a thick bundle of pages saddle-stitched on one side – is slowly becoming something that no longer matters.

Over the last year, two technologies emerged that have made reading text in electronic form significantly easier: electronic paper that no longer strains your eyes, and portable computers (led by netbooks and the new Apple iPad tablet) thanks to which you can carry an entire digital library with you. Given the current pace of technology diffusion, we can expect the digitization of the last stronghold of analog culture to be a matter of not years but months. US newspapers experienced this in 2006 when the paper press market suddenly shrank by half. The CD market changed in a similarly dramatic fashion. So what happens when the readership of various kinds of texts migrates to digital?

Firstly, it’s time to stop talking about books and start talking about text. The book is a medium, a content carrier. The same content can be successfully distributed in other forms. If observing the effects of digitization in other fields of culture has taught us anything, it’s that efforts to save the business forms and models strictly related to the specificity of the medium are doomed to fail.

The song is a very instructive example here. A mere decade ago, songs distributed as cassette tapes, vinyl records or CDs were always bundled into albums. The album was not only a collection of songs but also a certain artistic form, a narrative with its beginning and end. Digitization, which separated content from the medium, brought the death of the album. Today, the song has to manage on its own. The business models have changed too. For a decade now, medium sales have been an insignificantly small item in artists’ revenues, the bulk of proceeds generated from live tours and radio and TV royalty fees. Recently, artists have also started to generate revenue by distributing digital files online, but only in very specific models. The model based on advertising and sale of merchandise (T-shirts, mugs etc.) is the most popular one, of course. Charging for access to the music files themselves is rarer: iTunes has been a success because it offers vertical integration. Nothing is simpler than finding a song on iTunes Music Store. The time and effort required to find the same song free of charge on the Web, start a P2P application or download the audio track from YouTube is simply worth more to us than the $1 spent at the store. Buying access to a song we pay, paradoxically, not for the song itself but for the convenience and ease of use of the store’s services.

The commercial entities that continue to operate on the printed book market thus face a daunting challenge today. But the same dilemmas are faced by public-sector cultural institutions. They too should draw conclusions from the ongoing process of the digitization of culture. And they too will have to fight for survival.

The book, understood as a certain distribution model related to the medium’s physical properties, is doomed to the same fate as the music album. Readers will continue to read texts of various lengths but the ways in which they are accessed and used will be completely different than they are today. It’s already become necessary to catch up with the users’ changing needs. And we urgently need a debate on how the public mission is to be fulfilled in the new media environment.

If what we care about is the level of text readership and the quality of cultural texts – and I assume that is precisely what we care about – then one thing is really important: texts that are not available won’t be read. The cultural institutions have to be present with their offer where the readers are. If readers look for content on the Web, it becomes the cultural institution’s fundamental mission to make content available in digital form. Today, the internet is not a means of cultural participation for the rich but precisely for the poor: those living too far from the centers of culture, the handicapped, those unable to buy works of culture in the costly analog form.

It seems that institutions best prepared today to fulfill their mission in an information society era are libraries. Although their spending on digitization and online distribution can hardly be deemed as satisfactory, Polish libraries have in the last couple of years developed a technological and organizational infrastructure allowing them to successfully face the digital challenge. The low cost of making digital content available means that they are able to reach huge numbers of recipients at a relatively small expense. If they survive, that is.

The mission of libraries is to “preserve and make available the cultural heritage.” How this mission should be fulfilled in digital space seems obvious: libraries have to collect and make content available on the Web. That is why, for instance, the definition of a digital library in the recently published Ministry of Culture report on digitization, which focuses on describing the technical parameters of a website, sounds rather odd. Has libraries’ basic mission changed?

It may seem so at times. There are no systemic solutions in Poland regarding the collection and distribution of information in digital form – websites, text documents, information in various multimedia and interactive formats. Negotiations with the Polish Book Chamber about mandatory digital copies have stalled. No one has even touched the issue of the preservation of software code, which can be considered a part of our cultural heritage, too. Copyright law makes the fulfillment of the other part of the mission – making content available – impossible in practice. Libraries face a serious crisis and it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario where they are transformed into bookstores that make content available only to those who can afford it.

Libraries play a key role today in the circulation of cultural goods. After all, the whole thing is not about the institution itself but about the important community needs that it responds to. These needs won’t disappear. If libraries do, they will remain unsatisfied.

There are many recipes for fulfilling the state’s culture-creating mission and they can be formulated in several simple principles. If a book is subsidised by the state – the publisher should be contractually obliged to make it available free of charge online. This seems to be the case in Hungary today. If a periodical is subsidised, it should be available online. Not right away perhaps, but after some time. But the life span of a book or periodical on the bookstore shelf is limited. Besides, subsidies usually go to projects that have little market potential. That’s why nothing should prevent making them available for free in digital libraries. This is particularly important in the case of educational materials that build social capital in very direct terms. Germans, who have successfully promoted the Open Access movement, have huge experience in this area. In Poland too, if an educational or training project is subsidised by the state, all materials related to it should be available online with the right of further use.

Today’s practices are hardly encouraging. The copyright to Janusz Korczak’s books is held by the state. But you’d be wrong to think that as a result they are widely available in digital libraries. On the contrary, the Book Institute makes sure they are as unavailable as possible by selling licenses for exorbitant prices, citing the maximization of state revenue as the reason.

Of course, one can understand that state revenues are important, but is this how cultural institutions are supposed to fulfill their mission? There exists no cohesive policy on managing rights owned by the state and worse still, there even exists no list of titles the state has rights to. If the same was true for real estate properties, a major scandal would break out. In the field of culture, apparently, there’s no problem.

We should consider such a policy, not only in the context of building a catalogue of what the state has but also in the context of the goals we want to achieve by using the content in question. If we want to support the production of cultural texts, promote innovation, remove barriers in access to education, it’s time to use completely new instruments. The solutions are there. What is lacking is the will.

translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak