Our Books, Our Selves

Perhaps the “collection” of the future will owe as much to visualization software as it does to taxonomies or lists.

In our professional lives, many of us are concerned with collection development and management in one way or another, and we all know how much that landscape is changing. So I was intrigued to read in this month’s guest editorial by Ilan Stavans of his belief—admittedly anecdotal—that libraries remain on the fence about collecting works exclusively in digital forms, as ebooks in particular. I have no idea whether or not this is actually the case, but Professor Stavans’s experience as a new publisher raises some interesting questions.

Collection development in the academic library proceeds largely along disciplinary lines, but in the consumer market acquisition habits are more diverse, and here, apparently, no such hesitancy prevails. The Association of American Publishers reported last year that the number of ebooks grew by just over 10 percent in 2013 and estimated that the overall size of the market is now in the neighborhood of $3B. Which brings me to some important (for me, at least) questions: What does a personal collection “look like” in an increasingly digital world? Do we even conceive of our books (films, music, photos, etc.)—acquired for diverse, sometimes idiosyncratic reasons over the course of many years—as forming a collection at all?

I think that in one important sense, we do. Certain nineteenth-century philosophers maintained that our labor ideally represents an objectification of ourselves in the world. Regardless of how one feels about that statement, I am aware that in my own life, and in the lives of many of my colleagues, the books we have purchased, read, and retained in our homes or offices constitute a body of physical evidence, an objectification, of our inner lives and the development of our Selves as social beings. Many of them retain an intense personal significance, evoking memories of the conditions under which they were acquired. They represent, in the most fundamental and yes, tangible, sense, an autobiographical statement of how we came to be what we are today.

If that is true, then the migration to digital formats presents some challenges. To the extent that much of our digital content now lives in the cloud, it can no longer be lost, erased, or misplaced when changing devices, but it can certainly be “disappeared,” depending on the vagaries of the licensing agent, or made more difficult to find. For needless to say, ebooks et al. are invisible. A library of ebooks is a digital catalog; of music, a playlist. Private silos in virtual space. Without waxing nostalgic for walls of sagging bookshelves or clattery towers of jewel cases, navigation and discovery do have their own problems in the digital world, even at home.

All this is to say that as we make the transition to other, less tangible means of representing information, we will need to find ways of creating proxies for that sense of personal history we invest in the objects in our collections, keeping in mind that human beings construct geographies and live in visual spaces, even when those spaces are metaphorical. (We are reminded of Matteo Ricci’s memory palace in this regard.) Perhaps the “collection” of the future will owe as much to visualization software as it does to taxonomies or lists.

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About the author:

Mark Cummings is the editor and publisher at Choice