The Future of Books, Publishing and Libraries – an AAAS panel

My conclusions from attending the panel were:

The book isn’t gone it’s just different.
Newspapers are dead.
Publishing models are in the midst of change; success will depend on adding new kinds of values.
Libraries won’t go away but they will be a different bundle of services lodged in a changing physical place.

The best comment during the Q&A:

“Starbucks succeeded because it provided a place for digital reading.” – Dan Clancy

The most provocative question with the most unsatisfactory answer:

“Why should there be more than one library?”

The Babbage Difference EngineThe American Academy of Arts and Sciences sponsored a weekend symposium here in Silicon Valley titled The Public Good: The Impact of Information Technology on Society. The closing panel was on Sunday morning at the Computer History Museum (CMH). (We got a private tour after the symposium but I didn’t get to see the Babbage Difference Engine in operation. Sigh)

There was a crowd of 300 (on Sunday! in the morning!) to hear the panel discuss The Future of Books, Publishing and Libraries. Edward Feigenbaum (a godfather of AI) moderated. The panelists were Dan Clancy (Engineering Director, Google Book Search), John Hollar (current President of the CMH but long a top Pearson publishing executive), John Warnock (Co-founder and co-chairman of the board at Adobe Systems), Michael Keller (University Librarian and director of Academic Information Resources at Stanford), Don Lindberg (Director, National Library of Medicine) and a late addition, Daniel Goroff (Sloan Foundation program officer and Professor of Mathematics and Economics at Harvey Mudd). Each of them had 15-20 minutes to make their observations on the topic. Here’s some snippets that I noted:

Feigenbaum noted that he’d dined with a group of Stanford University undergraduates and tried to engage them in a discussion of the future of the book. The collective and specific response was “Why should we care?” He also gave a short tutorial on the shape and derivation of an exponential curve. That it’s referred to and used incorrectly so often really bothers him.

Clancy observed that these discussions need to be reframed. We’re too stuck in the embodiment of today to understand what the future might be. He thinks libraries were about search, access and preservation. He thinks the crowd has become the authority, access will be dispersed to many places and the really unaddressed and scary problem is preservation. It is no one’s job right now.

Hollar framed the debate around the Future of the Book vs. the Reader of the Future. That outcome has two defining dimensions – Distribution (paper to screen) and Content (the collision between content and distribution). Everybody is online. Broadband is ubiquitous. Paper has lost. Given that a lot of content is generic, the content that finds the lowest cost, lowest friction distribution channel will succeed. He quoted this blog post to the effect that

“it costs the New York Times about twice as much money to print and deliver the newspaper over a year as it would cost to send each of its subscribers a brand new Amazon Kindle instead.”

And he referenced his former boss at Pearson with this quotation

“Content is mostly generic, particularly in education. There are only a few ways you can describe photosynthesis. It’s only the way you impart that information that’s different.”

Warnock thinks the library opportunity is in electronic aggregation and organization. He spent most of his time talking about why newspapers are dead (he was on the board of Knight Ridder for many years where apparently they spoke a lot about the cost of wood pulp). His closing observations were:

The cost of delivery matters
Traditional media are too capital intensive to survive
It’s very hard for companies to change their business models

In glossing his final point he excoriated managers who are incapable of seeing and unequipped to manage a change that would take their firm from say a $300M company to a $100M one.

Keller said the book will be different (embedded content, etc.), publishing will find a new equilibrium somewhere between the vanity publishing and the big name/star system publishing poles that currently exist and that libraries will be different. They will still be places (the trope about library as place got used a lot in this symposium), they won’t necessarily be collections but they will provide access and within the academy they will play an important role translating between disciplines, licensing content, preserving, analyzing and presenting. He particularly called out special collections, personal and institutional archives as defining concentrations for the future library.

Lindberg seconded most of this particularly the embedded content observation. “What would you rather have,” he asked, “a book that says


or an audio recording of that particular heart sound?”

Finally, Daniel Goroff closed with a tutorial on Information, Public Goods and the Economics of Publishing. He particularly wanted the audience to understand the concept of a public good as opposed to the good of the public. He noted that for public goods to prosper you needed organizations and institutions that would help engender the necessary trust and foster the needed cooperation. Traditionally these have been governments and foundations but new trusted third parties might be necessary.

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