The knowledge revolution

"The library is the heart of the university," wrote Charles W Eliot, long-time president of Harvard, in 1873. That the history of academic libraries mirrors the development of higher education is an uncontroversial truth. Which is also why, as university courses start to move online, university libraries have been there some time.

A process is well underway in which centuries-old intellectual hierarchies are being overturned, and considerable amounts of academic de-skilling is taking place. I won’t be campaigning either for Amazon or for the Hachette-Penguin elite in the current e-book pricing battle, because neither side represents what I believe in.

Today, it is the internet that is the true heart of the modern university, and Google is the omniscient librarian. Google Books already outranks most of the world’s print collections and is busy scanning the rest of the estimated 129,864,880 print books that now exist on Earth.

As Steve Coffman, himself a university librarian, puts it: “It was a great ride while it lasted,” but now the time of the library as a research centre, with specialist staff who alone could unlock its secrets “has come and gone”.

People no longer use libraries shaped and curated by librarians. The generation entering universities today is more comfortable with digital than traditional sources of information. For them, the difference between an e-book and a real one is that it is only the former anyone still reads. And that the difference between an e-book and a website is that the latter is better.

Real books, academics are relics

Real books have become relics, fit for glass cases, as in the British Library at St Pancras. And the changes could leave many professors in a similar situation.

For centuries, academics have been defined by their books – both the ones they teach by and the ones that they write. But for students, an amorphous electronic mass of websites is already replacing core and set texts.

The paper published in the prestigious journal Nature, purporting to show that entries by Wikipedia’s anonymous editors were as reliable as those of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s subject experts is a straw in the wind in this respect.

The fact that Cambridge University Press’ recent book, Who's Bigger: Where historical figures really rank, on the most ‘influential’ people in history (Jesus just pips Napoleon), was written, not by historians, but by two United States computer specialists (Steven Skiena and Charles Ward) and relied heavily on the relative length of nearly a million Wikipedia entries, is another.


On the internet, instead of subject experts, information is presented according to esoteric algorithms which are quite novel. For Amazon, the best book on a topic is the one that has sold most copies in the last few weeks; for Google the best website is the one with the highest ‘PageRank’.

Precisely how either is determined is a secret, but scholarship doesn’t come into it.

In the academic history world many have a sense of déjà vu. Articles in journals worry us not only about the future of the great library collections, vide Alexandria, but also about scholarship itself.

Yet what is there to do but accept change? One strategy, exemplified by Hull University’s Brynmor Jones Library (the one Philip Larkin used to run), is to literally throw out many of the old books and instead create ‘a state-of-the-art place of learning for generations to come’. According to its website (of course), in the new library, you can:

“Bring your online life with you. Our wireless network will let you use your mobile device wherever you go in the BJL. You will have more PCs, more printers, and upgraded self-service facilities using RFID technology… Silent study? Innovative teaching? Group projects? There will be a space for however you like to work… Meet friends for coffee in the new cafeteria, take in an exhibition, catch the stunning view from the seventh floor, or even host a black tie event.”

Hull should be complimented on seeing the future coming. As should Maurice Line, sometime director general of the British Library, who foresaw the end of the library, in an article for Ariadne web magazine as long ago as 1998. He warned:

“All libraries are affected by IT. At the same time it both poses threats, particularly that of being bypassed in favour of direct access, and offers opportunities. The ultimate threat is non-existence, which some think is a real prospect: public libraries because there are other priorities for funding and other opportunities for enlightenment and entertainment; academic libraries because students and researchers will soon be getting everything online.”

The journalist, Sonny Yap, once described the library as “perhaps the best antidote to the insidious influence of the suburban shopping mall… a chance to browse in a marketplace of ideas instead of a marketplace of goods and services”.

But even if it was once, these days the antidote is no longer effective. Far from it! Amazon, which is today where the world goes for books, has carefully applied the Walmart model to every stage of publishing.

Its founder, Jeff Bezos, is proud of revolutionising the means of book production and distribution, yet the old mechanisms by which academics did have at least the ‘potential’ to spread ideas are also disappearing, replaced by a much more ruthless market in intellectual property.

For the academic presses, the kind of books they can do has changed. The change is one way – from ‘trade’ towards reading lists. So the place of the presses and academic authors alike in intellectual and cultural life is shrinking, taken by attractively packaged, gossipy books from trade presses, who ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’.

Academic publishers used to take hardback library sales for granted, university bookshops were a big part of the equation, and so too were the big town centre bookstores. But now libraries are history and bookstores are a shadow of what they used to be.

The biggest losers are academic authors with books that, in the past, would have sold to many more than the set-reading-list people. These authors can’t sell to browsing readers because the stores do not carry a wide range of books, and indeed the readers are not entering the stores looking for them.

The Amazon revolution

It happened so fast, we hardly noticed. In 1995, the year Jeff Bezos, then 31, started Amazon, just 16 million people used the internet. Today, almost one out of every four humans on the planet are online.

In sum, the bookstore wars are long over, and Amazon won. Rarely do students and academics buy their books from the curated collections that were university bookshops; they buy them online where margins are shaved and prices are cheaper.

Where once university presses earnestly solicited academics for their research projects, promising readers' reports, copyediting and fastidious proof checking, now even the giant, transnational presses – like Taylor & Francis and Wiley-Blackwell – have had to drastically rethink their assumptions about profits from such books, in the absence of library sales, shrinking university bookshops and a public culture of book browsing for free on the internet.

Actually, I’m not saying the changes are all black and white (that old ways are all good and new ways all bad).

I’m just saying that they are profound and ‘out of control’. No one planned or thought through the change to what is rapidly becoming a 'world without books'.

And that we should be sceptical of talk of new forms of writing, new forms of learning – market forces normally result in the emergence of a few brands at the expense of choice and diversity.

The great thing about books, unlike, say TV, was that for any topic, there was always a choice. A choice between producers (authors and publishers) as well as a choice between products. The internet, for all its vastness, has a tendency towards monopoly and centralised control, the antithesis of the conditions in which learning and education can flourish.

If it were a physical bookshop, it would be one in which only recent Penguin books are on the display, and the rest are stocked in a vast basement.

* Martin Cohen is editor of The Philosopher and author of numerous books in philosophy and social science. He has taught and researched philosophy in the UK and Australia. Contact Martin Cohen:

* Illustration courtesy of iStock.