Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Are we headed toward a "Paperless Society"?

Years ago when I went to library school, I remember reading an article about the world becoming a "paperless society." I believe the term was coined by F. W. Lancaster in an 1978 book entitled Toward Paperless Information Systems. (There's a bibliography which includes many of Lancaster's writings on the topic on the Wikipedia article for "paperless society.") At the time, most of us in the class could not envision such a thing happening. Of course, now most of us can envision it and fear the day it happens. As I was reading the Chronicle of Higher Education's blog this morning, I was reminded of that article. Marc Prensky has written an article entitled "In the 21st-Century University, Let's Ban Books."  I have to admit that the thought still scares me. I've seen many books that don't format well on electronic devices, particularly those with footnotes. I much prefer footnotes (or end notes) as used in The Chicago Manual of Style rather than the internal references used by the style guides produced by MLA and APA. Those of us in genealogy use footnotes all the time in our writing. OCR scanning does not handle footnotes well. When you get to a footnote, it appears right where it appeared in the text of the book. The reader has to figure out where this is and try to figure out where the footnotes end so that he can resume the sentence he has been reading. I wish publishers producing Kindle and other format e-books would recognize this and convert footnotes to end notes (at least at the chapter level) before publishing the electronic format of the book. It is such a simple process to do with most Word processing programs. Of course, it's less of a problem if the book is delivered as a PDF. There are some books that don't lend themselves well to ePub and MOBI formats because of the nature of their contents. A style guide, such as Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence Explained is one such book. These formats would not preserve the indentations, etc. that are seen in a carefully formatted print publication. One also has to wonder what would happen to books that contain transcriptions of probate and other court cases and such where the case name is bracketed on one side and the content begins on the other. I know that moving print books to storage is in the long range plans of many academic libraries who have embraced the e-book. It's a scary thought, not only from the aspect of losing such a cherished medium, but also from the aspects of job security and the availability of books to those who really cannot afford them. If academic libraries take the lead on this, it won't be long until public libraries follow them down this "slippery slope."

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