The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

New literacy and the library debate

Last year during a particularly severe round of budget cuts a parent at a School District meeting asked why we spend money on books.  She wanted to know if libraries were a thing of the past and should we be wasting money on print literature.  Having a position as a teacher-librarian and being an avid lover of literature I found myself appalled at this statement.  I was not alone.   How could someone suggest that the book was a device that would sink into obsolescence?  After all, I could never picture myself curling up with a laptop and reading The Life of Pi.  But perhaps I am in the minority.


If the reading of books is on the decline as Caleb Crain (2007) suggests then it may be so that in the near future libraries will be converted to other uses in our schools.  As a librarian I am particularly interested in how the notion of text is changing for my students and it was for this reason that rather than doing a degree in Library and Information Studies I chose to enrol in the Masters of Educational Technology program.  As text changes so too does the job of the librarian in today’s schools.  This position is increasingly becoming a technology position as more and more information is accumulated, stored and even created initially in a digital format (Grafton, 2007).  Teacher-librarians must now become experts in multiple literacies as they help to guide their students through these varied information sources.


In his article, Future reading: digitization and its discontents, Grafton (2007) addresses the rise and potential fall of the library and while the change that the modern library may not be matched in scale to the changes it has encountered before there is a great deal to be gained from examining its past in order to predict its future.  In fact the impact of the rise of the printing press on the library was so profound that an entire system of cataloguing and managing the flow of information became necessary.  As a librarian I am constantly discussing this issue with colleagues.  Will librarians be tasked out to catalogue web-based information or is its status too potentially fleeting to make it worthwhile?


            Perhaps the most intriguing idea here is that even the staunch world of academia now turns to a search engine before it enters the library’s stacks when it begins research (Grafton, 2007).  Grafton points out that journal subscriptions are on the rise and the sale of university-press books are dwindling and one only has to look at our own work in the MET program to see evidence of this.  In fact, as UBC holds subscriptions for to electronic journals for student and faculty access it is becoming rarer that students are required to purchase custom course materials in print form for their courses.


            Grafton (2007) exposits that we will still need our libraries because the physical form of the text or book impacts how it is used and this cannot be duplicated in digital form.  He speaks of historians gleaning information from notations made in family bibles and binding methods that speak to elements of social history.  Concern here though is that he is addressing the book in historical context.  It seems already relegated to a thing of the past.


            Where I think that the demarcation line may lie is between text in the form of information and that in the form of literature.  While research and information gathering is increasingly dominated by the web the digital book has met with some resistance from those of us who love the feel and portability of a good book.  Where the library must refocus itself is in dealing with text as it evolves into a digitally dominated format.  It must refocus, as it has always done, to meet the needs of a changing text-space but its role as a place where literature lives will be slower to change.





Crane, Caleb (2007).  Twilight of the books: What will life be like if people stop reading?  New York: The New Yorker.


Grafton, Anthony (2007).  Future reading: Digitization and its discontents.  New York: The New Yorker.

O’Donnell, James J. (1994).  The virtual library; an idea whose time has passed.  Gateways, Gatekeepers, and Roles in the Information Omniverse: Proceedings of the Third Symposium. Eds.  Ann Okerson and Dru Mogge. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries Office of Scientific and Academic Publishing. 19-32.

Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London and New York: Methuen.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 7:26 pm }

I had not considered the cost issue. Now I am suspicious about why my university suscribed to a digital library.

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