Friday, August 21, 2009

The Late Age of Print

Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 242 pp. $27.50.

As a faculty member in a professional school that has, over its more than century of existence, transformed itself from a library school to one of library and information science and finally to a school of information, one might assume that I am not interested in traditional printed books. We are bombarded daily with claims that print is dead and laments about the decline of the book. Actually, surrounded by thousands of books both in my university and home offices, I admit to loving books and, even, to believing that they have a legitimate future in our digital age.

Recently I encountered a book that provides a much more balanced claim about the utility of printed books. Ted Striphas, a professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, argues that books will continue to play an important role in our society, and he counters the claim about their demise. Indeed, Striphas argues that such claims are partly the result of the lack of real scholarly analysis of books and book culture leading to exaggerated claims that print technology is ending and books as objects are disappearing. His careful research and well-written book provides some greater balance to the debate about the book.

This academic leads the reader through the debate about print versus digital, considers the meaning of the emergence of the big bookstores and book chains, examines the significance of and its success, reviews the role of Oprah’s Book Club, and evaluates the ramifications of the international rip-offs of the Harry Potter books. In each of these examples, Striphas places books and the technologies and commercial systems supporting them in their historical context. The Barnes and Noble enterprise is depicted, for example, not as the end of the cultural value of books or as an insidious attack on small, independent bookstores, but as offering different “effective strategies for communicating the relevance of, and generating interest in, books to both the actual and potential book buying public” (p. 78). Amazon, as another example, can only be fully understood in light of the emergence of technological developments such as providing books with codes (ISBN numbers) that date back to the 1930s and that enabled the rise of massive bookselling enterprises. Amazon is depicted by Striphas as a “large-scale, direct-to-customer, warehouse bookseller whose interface happens to be the World Wide Web” (p. 101).

Although written by an academic and published by a university press, The Late Age of Print is a book that ought to be read outside of academic circles. It stands against many popular publications confidently declaring the end of the printed book or decrying the loss of the traditional book. Striphas argues that the era we are in “isn’t a period in which familiar aspects of books and book culture are nearing their final and definitive moment of reckoning. Rather, it’s a more dynamic and open-ended moment characterized by both permanence and change” (p. 175). He draws on historical, sociological, and other models to make this point, but none of this scholarly writing detracts from a book that should be read by anyone interested in books and their value.

Which is why a professor in an information school assigns books to students as required readings, is surrounded in his work by numerous books (and inspired by them to work), and teaches about their value to the next generation of librarians, archivists, and information workers.

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