Tragedy of Books

Two recent encounters with books have left me wondering how long we can afford this medium for knowledge production and distribution.

The first event was bumping into Kevin Kelly’s excellent New York Times article “Scan this book” Kelly talks about the need (and very real possibility of creating) the universal library ” the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time.” He presents a number of compelling arguments for a time when all books wil be digital, networked and connected, thereby allowing multiple hyper links, connecting, mashing, augmenting, annotating and and re-connecting all published information – in many formats. Kelly goes on to reiterate the challenges for publishers and copyright owners when the cost of copying drops to near zero and when consumption does not deplete the resource. In sum, Kelly points to the future in which knowledge is liberated from books and made available, in customizable form to all of us.

From this utopian mindset, I strolled into the Exhibit Halls last week at the American Education Research Association’s annual conference in New York. The AERA conference is by far the largest conference I attend (over 12,000 delegates) with the program of over 500 pages in tiny font. The exhibit this year had 94 publishers displaying their paper wares. Together the publishers create a literary smörgåsbord that is a delight to any academic. I was impressed by the quantity of books of interest to me and couldn’t help but drop a couple of hundred books on more than a few kilos of product.

But what a far cry from Kelly’s vision! The tables were set with (arguably) the best thinking and research results in education research, all in one place. Unfortunately, that one place was 5,000 kms from my home (I’m purposively not thinking about eco-footprints). But more important than the 12,000 delegates who were allowed access to the banquet, is the hundreds of thousands of educators for whom access is continually denied. Morover, the content is fixed and unchangeable, only linked to other texts through non-clickable footnotes and references and all owned (with all rights reserved) by for profit companies.

We have a moral obligation to free this information from its paper confines and make it available to all. That after all is what scholarship was supposed to be all about and one of the main rationale for its call on the public purse. In Jesus’ parables (Luke 14,) response to limited access to the banquet was to recruit guests from the streets. Today we have the technical affordances to take the banquet to the streets. But this won’t happen until those of us who author these tomes demand and take individual steps to make our contributions available to all.

3 thoughts on “Tragedy of Books

  1. Not surprising as the AERA is still a bit pre-Web 1.0 in a lot of respects.

    Any progress on establishing a SIG for DE?

  2. Hear hear, I heartily concur – we should take the banquet to the streets.

    But…. how is one to get paid as an author if the works one generates are freely available? Your idealistic talk about moral obligations is in direct conflict with the economic imperative of our society – “I made it and I deserve to be paid for it!!”

    Personally I would wiave my economic rights in favour of social and moral equity and development. I wonder how many others would.

  3. I would like to see more academic literature made freely available. I get frustrated when I am doing research, find interesting articles, and then to get access to the article I have to pay. I also think it is valid to compensate authors for their work.

    Would a system of limited copyright work? An author has his published writing protected for a period of time (3-5 years) and then it automatically switches to open access rights?

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