In September, the nation’s first all electronic library — equipped with 10,000 e-Books and 500 eReaders —opened in San Antonio, Texas. They call the library BiblioTech.
Does this eLibrary forebode the end of the published book, as we know it? Has the paper-and-print book become obsolete in the digital age? Statistics seem to point that way.
Last year, the population reading printed books dropped from 72 percent to 67 percent, while the readers of eBooks grew from 16 percent to 23 percent.
If the end of the book is near, it’s important that we consider what will be lost and what will change if we transition to purely electronic reading. These are the themes artist Tim Schwartz explores in his exhibit “Bookends,” which opened Dec. 4 at the new Structural and Materials Engineering (SME) Art Gallery on the ground floor of the SME building on the UCSD campus.
In case you’re wondering what an art gallery is doing in an engineering building, the truth is there are many artists working there — especially those specializing in new technology and new materials use.
Schwartz is an UCSD Visual Arts MFA alumnus, currently based in Los Angeles, who was invited back to campus because of his work with new technology. In addition to his education in the arts, Schwartz has a B.A. in physics from Wesleyan University.
To gather material for this show, Schwartz orchestrated 30 different “performances” in libraries in Los Angeles and New York over a two-month period this year. How people browse library books was “treated as an instrument that could be played,” explained Schwartz.
The performances involved various individuals who were invited to browse through library materials for 1.5 to 2.5 hours. Schwartz followed the browser/performers around the library with a portable book scanner he built, scanning whatever people chose to look through.
After the performance, the scans were processed with Abby FineReader, one of the most advanced Optical Character Recognition software systems available. With Abby FineReader, Schwartz created a PDF file from which a hardbound book of each browse session was printed. There are 30 of these books in the exhibit.
Schwartz then used another software program called eScape 50 to create 50 ePaper (an electronic paper developed at MIT) screens that transformed the entire material of each book into one digital representation (visualization), each resembling a misty black-and-white mountain landscape or stormy seascape. The 50 sheets of framed ePaper were placed in one long row upon one wall for viewer contemplation.
Also included in the SME show is Schwartz’s homemade portable book scanner, which is housed under a small black pup tent.
All told, Schwartz’s show is sparse in eye-catching materials, but deep in concept. The value of art projects like his is the personal contemplation they trigger. As you look through the printed books and examine their digital representations, you begin to think about your own experience of reading, both real books and electronic material. You are enticed to shift through your own memories and experiences, and by way of reflection, develop a new perspective on things you’ve been experiencing without much thought.
Perhaps the most beguiling things to look at are the books. You get to “browse” the browsing of others and watch how their minds work. You are confronted with many random fields, serendipitous subjects, odd pictures, and diagrams that your mind naturally seeks to order and to plumb.
This browsing function of the mind on some path toward discovery of something that might be of importance to us is one of the things Schwartz says we will lose if we transition to solely electronic reading where computerized browsers and search engines organize and prioritize electronic material in a linear manner — and often with the commercial aim of trying to sell us something.
“It is the narrowing of ideas that may come in the digital age, where filters and online curators direct you to the information they think you want, that I fear,” Schwartz said.
He added that the digital age makes too much information too readily available on any subject one might choose to “Google,” and all that information gets presented in such a standardized fashion (i.e. Wikipedia) that it leads to a kind of “hyper-reality.” That, said Schwartz, is the loss of one’s sense of reality or the creation of an alienating symbolic reality, where the past and the future are no longer felt, but are flattened into a sense of an all-pervasive present moment, in which we can easily lose our bearings.
Jennifer Rutherford, who curated one of Schwartz’s art exhibitions in Australia, also laments the potential loss of the book as a physical object one can bond with.
She warns, "the book as a tactile, olfactory, haptic, visual, and sensory memory bank of the interior life may be lost in the future. In my memory, there is not a critical moment without a book in it. Books have been fellow travelers and bedfellows. I have gone hungry for books, wept over books, devoured books, fought over books, and loved through books.”
Schwartz, too, is fearful of what the loss of books could mean. “That is why I am on the trail of the loss, hopefully, finding new ways we might make aesthetic gains over the imminent changes we are facing.”