By Erik Ketcherside
A Village Life Exclusive
My grandfather had an amazing library -- big, musty and old, with some books that gave up their contents under Grandad's half-glasses or, in some recalcitrant cases, his faux-tortoise magnifying glass. Other books rarely left the shelves, and still others were exiled to boxes in the garage from lack of use.
Those heavy shelves, both sides stressed to capacity, bisected the length and height of the lower level of Grandad and Grandmother's suburban St. Louis home. Sitting on the couch beside those shelves, in sunlight patterned by the shrubs outside the high-placed windows, my brother and I would listen to Grandad read to us, rolling his "r"s exactly as he did when he preached a sermon. Our favorite books? The heavy, red-bound, volumes one and two of Grolier's 1918 London edition, "The Book of Knowledge."
To my brother and me, those books lived up to their title. We probably didn't believe that all of humankind's knowledge was collected between the creaky covers of those two volumes, but we knew there was a lot there, and there were hundreds more books beside them.
Those two grandsons today have libraries of their own, in the same rooms where they keep their desktop computers. They both spend far more time than they probably should on the Internet, and they both have instant access to millions of times the information found in those ancient books in Grandad's library.
Not only is that information readily available, it is also constantly updated -- no waiting for the 1925 edition to come out to learn of the newest scientific discoveries, political maneuverings and artistic efforts. Breaking news can be read moments after it happens, thrown up on the Web in less time than it took to set one line of type in 1918.
And then there are graphics. The illustrations in "The Book of Knowledge" (black and white only, of course) were interesting, but academic. Pictures on the Web or on CD-ROM vibrate with color, some even in video format -- impossible to pass up for a couple of late baby boomers raised on Warner Brothers cartoons.
The CD-ROM encyclopedia that my daughters love to use not only yields full-color photographs of thousands of animals, but audibly reproduces the calls of many of them. My children have followed along as Martin Luther King gives his "Dream" speech, first delivered two decades before either of them was born, with the text delivered in King's own voice; watched the first moon landing after reading Neil Armstrong's account of it; and experienced the sound of every instrument of the orchestra while seeing each one played.
How can the simple spots on paper we call the printed word compete with this fast-as-light magic? The visionaries who saw these miracles zooming out of the future said, "It can't," and forecasted the doom of the print medium. With newspapers, reference books, and novels all available through the World Wide Web, on floppy disk, or on CD, they predicted that the printed book will yellow -- crumble into oblivion. But, like many self-appointed prophets, they may have spoken too soon.
There is no arguing that the availability of books on the Web or on CD makes information gathering infinitely more flexible, affordable, and often more entertaining than the printed medium.
In fact, it is particularly in the area of research that the "digital book" flaunts its superiority. In addition to ready access to information from countless sources via the Web, inexpensive software is available which allows thorough study of sacred texts such as the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran.
Affordable CD-ROM Bibles offer built-in concordances in not only several English translations, but also Greek and Aramaic. Type in the word "tithe" in English, and immediately find every occurrence of the word in both the Old and New Testaments, and compare its use in every translation from King James to New Century.
But instantaneous access may not be nirvana. Witness the infrastructure of the New York Public Library's stunning new, $100 million Science, Industry, and Business branch, opened in May 1996. Housed in a former department store on Madison Avenue, the appropriately named "SIBL" is, according to an NYPL news release, "the nation's premier information center devoted to science and business. Its advanced information technologies put it in the forefront of the information revolution...."
Two public floors of the 160,000-square-foot SIBL building hold 70 computer terminals for general use. Five-hundred seats with attendant phone line connectors allow for visitors' own laptop and notebook computers. All connections enable users to browse the online catalogs of the New York Public Library, its Web site, and online journals, and all are connected to a T-3 ultrahigh speed Internet line. SIBL is, in effect, a world library, boosting users at near light speed to information sources around the globe.
So what resource do most of SIBL's visitors come there to use? A SIBL spokesperson said recently that it is the printed material -- 1.2 million books and 110,000 periodical titles -- that are in the most demand. The spokesperson said most of the people who come to the SIBL facility are using the library's state of the art technology to locate a book or periodical in the building's closed to the public stacks -- even though many of those same periodicals are available on line.
The reason that most SIBL users opt for solid rather than digital books is the obvious difference in the two formats. Scrolling text across a glowing screen is, for most people, simply not a gratifying way to read for extended periods of time -- particularly for the growing number of people who spend considerable portions of their day staring at just such a screen.
In fact, the rapid expansion of computer technology in the workplace may be guaranteeing that the cyberbook will never totally replace the real thing. After a day of sitting in an ergonomically correct chair, wrists propped on an angled rest to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, and fingers typing away in the glow of a CRT, there is something deeply satisfying -- even therapeutic -- in sitting up in bed holding a creaky, old book into the late hours.
Though Martin Farquhar Tupper could not have foreseen the coming of the computer as he wrote his "Proverbial Philosophy" in 1842, his observation still holds true: "A good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever."
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