As the on-line world launches into publishing, what will this mean for the humble book – and for the heroic bookcase that for centuries has given tomes a home. As the world sleeps, a history-making revolution is taking place, the outcome of which is being described as our chance to ‘one-up the Greeks’.

I first heard the trumpeting of far reaching change in November 2004 when search engine Google announced it was partnering with The New York Public Library, the libraries of Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Oxford and the University of Michigan to make their entire collections searchable on the Web. The Google Print Library Project, which aimed to make it easier for people to find relevant books (specifically those out of print), was to involve the painstaking process of scanning and digitising every book across the five major collections (ranging from seven to 15 million books each) at the cost of 3 cents per page. It would take years to complete and cost Google hundreds of millions of dollars to realise – but it promised a democratisation of knowledge not previously known to mankind.

“This project signals an era when the printed record of civilisation is accessible to every person in the world with Internet access,” endorsed the President of the University of Michigan, Mary Sue Coleman. “It is an initiative with tremendous impact today and endless future possibilities.” Future possibilities that writer Kevin Kelly recently quantified in The New York Times as the universal library of all libraries which will ride in your purse or wallet. “Some may be hoping they die before this happens, others are wondering what is taking so long.”

Sitting collectively in the former group are members of The Authors Guild (US), which in 2005 joined with five major publishing houses to file a lawsuit stopping Google Print. Their claim was that Google should ask permission of the copyright holders before scanning their work and that they should share any advertising revenue with copyright owners.

The debate continued to rage, with Google all the while continuing to scan books — its view being that while the law gets busy writing ‘Search’ into intellectual property, technology would just find clever ways of dealing with the inconsistencies and driving the inevitable solution.

Undoubtedly we are entering a brave new world where technology is transforming the nature of the book and the libraries in which they have been housed. This current bias of technology has generated interesting responses from a new generation of artists and designers, whose aestheticising of the book reinforces the notion that one day soon it might be nothing more than an antiquarian’s collectable. It all began in the late 1990s with Ron Arad’s Bookworm and Lovely Rita shelving units for Kartell. These curvaceous sculptures liberated books from their compulsory vertically aligned existence, but while doing so reduced them to ‘visual effects’.

Visual explorations resonated at the 2006 Salone di Mobile in Milan, where book storage was generally fashioned into follies of form. For Driade, Francisco Gomez Paz designed the Omero – a modular injected tier of aluminium cones that when stacked with magazines, assumed the appearance of a large flower. British designer Jasper Morrison brought books down from their top shelf vantage with The Crate – a stool cum book storage unit that is a beautifully made replica of the wooden wine crate. His deceptively ‘dumbed down’ approach was reiterated by Dutch designer Maarten Baas who hand-coated his shelving in clay then lacquered it in colour by way of affirming that design is more about personal expression than servility. But if one could find a thread of communality among vanguard designers, it is size – the overall smaller dimensions of bookshelves say, in evolutionary terms, that the ‘ink on paper’ species of book is under threat of extinction. ‘Rubbish!’

I hear you say. ‘You can’t curl up in bed with a good screen?’ Granted, it just wouldn’t be the same. But the potential of the digital library is such that, when it finally slips into our pockets, I bet technology will make a pulp of fiction.

 

 

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