Culture  In defence of our books

McGill and Montreal literary experts speak against the shift to online

When Hermione Granger first smelled ‘Amortentia,’ the love potion which makes people smell the things they find most attractive, she smelled the scent of new parchment. Even in the Muggle world of contemporary Montreal, booklovers will line up to defend the nostalgic scent of print books, old and new. Hermione dwelled in Hogwarts libraries where books were made exclusively of parchment, but for those of us who frequent McGill libraries, the scent of print books is evaporating to make room for the digital medium. The switch from print to digital begs the important question amongst literary enthusiasts – are print books dead?

For McGill students, discussions about the survival of print books are particularly timely in light of recent and ongoing changes in the library system. As library budget cuts put the shift from print to electronic on the fast track, not everyone in the community is convinced that we’re heading in the right direction by digitizing.

When The Daily spoke with Professor Pasha M. Khan of the Institute of the Islamic Studies about this shift, he cautioned strongly against jumping the gun when it comes to relying entirely on digital sources in libraries. “It may even be short-sighted at this point,” he said, adding that “digital is important, of course […but] one needs to be flexible when thinking about the future.” According to Khan, we should “think about digital as one of many media for the distribution of this kind of information.” At this point in time, we cannot possibly know all the consequences of a full switch to digital texts.

Khan also highlighted the importance of critical thinking with regard to the popular discourse surrounding this switch. While we are quick to present and perceive this shift as cultural innovation, Khan argues that this is not quite the whole picture. “A lot of this rhetoric of innovation and ‘visionariness’ is just a smokescreen for the times – for austerity measures [at the provincial level] – to make sure that certain people can reap the rewards of a bad economic situation over others,” Khan explained. “And I think that’s really something we need to think about – the socio economic underpinnings of this kind of development.” While discursive framing of the switch to e-books as innovative sounds quite positive, the actors behind it may not be so well-intended.

The Birks Reading Room coordinator Allan Youster also held some suspicions with regards to the real motives behind digitization. “Publishing books is big business and university books are a large part of that big business,” Youster said, further explaining that “control of publishing has been centralized by large corporations under market pressure to be more profitable.” Digitization further centralizes publishing, eliminating local markets for smaller publishing companies. In a university context, Youster said that “library budgets are under extreme financial pressure everywhere.” Because of this, “the lure of […] buying digital and thus saving on housing costs, has excited some budget-conscious librarians.”
Budget-driven or not, when The Daily asked Youster why anyone should even bother with old–school books anymore, he responded, “Why bother with a camera, when you have a cellphone? Why even go out for a walk, when it’s so much easier sitting in front of your computer game? Some people will bother because it’s important to them.” Comparing this sudden shift to the move from vinyl to digital music, Youster noted that while “the doomed fate of vinyl” seemed certain then, vinyl is still around today, having “found a small place to grow.” Youster maintained that “the printed word will survive” – but the question remains of how it will do so.

But if innovation is not the only motive behind a switch to e-books, then nostalgia cannot be the only defence. While e-books may give us access to more texts quantitatively, print books give us more access qualitatively. E-book systems may provide a greater number of books, but the variety of these books is ironically more limited than print. Much of the Islamic Studies Library’s (ISL) collection, for example, is in print, because when it comes to books written outside of North America in languages like Arabic, Urdu, Persian, or Turkish, digital versions remain largely nonexistent. Khan explained to The Daily that here at McGill, “the ISL’s acquisition budget for print books has been slashed, and yet [in such languages] print is often all we have.”

In an interview with The Daily, Adrian King-Edwards, owner of The Word Bookstore on Milton, agreed with Youster that print sources are far from being goners. King-Edwards is not even convinced that students themselves are turning more toward e-books. “You continuously read this thing that books are finished, but I watch in the store. […] Students are still keen on buying books, and a lot of students are building [their own] libraries,” Youster said. “They come into the store every week and they collect books in their field. And it happens often with graduate students, foreign graduate students, because they realize that the books that are available here are not going to be available at home, and it’s certainly a good opportunity.” King-Edwards described bookstores and libraries as the “custodians of cultural heritage [that is] represented by books.”

Regardless of the proliferation of e-books, many people do prefer paper books. British marketing research agency Voxburner published a survey in 2013 showing that 62 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds preferred print to electronic. If it is the younger generation who is supposedly addicted to technology, the fact that this same population prefers print emphasizes how print books could be here to stay. For some reason we keep going back to The Word to pick up another piece for our growing libraries, and we keep flipping through the physical pages at the library. But while a passion for convenience may drive the shift to e-books, many in the McGill community will still stand in defence of books and claim that print is not dead.