Whither the bookshelf?

With the continued growth of the internet, the advent of the Kindle and now iBooks, one can be forgiven for wondering what the future holds for the humble bookshelf and its inhabitants.

Here in Cambridge I see a healthy convergence of old and new at the central library. The ever-so appealing hushed, almost reverential atmosphere of our library is combined with the latest technology to deliver reading matter in a heady mix of both traditional and digital. After all, a hardback book, like a Kindle, is merely a method of delivery and by facilitating literary consumption through all media – audio and visual, paper and digital – the library is providing choice, making materials more easily accessible, appealing to all consumer tastes and allowing readers to decide which is the most appropriate and convenient method for their particular circumstance.

Are we reaching a turning point in this most essential medium of communication? History has witnessed many milestones which have been transformational. History books and indeed Wikipedia (!) report on three major examples: the invention of gunpowder, the compass and the printing press. The internet will surely go down in history as the fourth great invention. So, will the shine of digital media make books passé and consign the beloved bookshelf to a life supporting only carriage clocks and ornamental figurines?

Speaking for myself, I hope not. Within my own home I am proud to display books which are associated with a memory in my life. When visiting other people’s homes I am equally drawn to their bookshelves and animated discussion often ensues about books we have read in common. It seems to me that people develop an emotional attachment to the books they have read – they may only read them once but they still keep them fondly displayed on dusty shelves. So, like the digital photo-frame which flicks from one favourite memory captured in a photograph to another, maybe we’ll see a digital book-frame on Christmas lists this year, to be displayed proudly alongside our novels, verses, reference books, and figurines, as a convergence of old and new in the home.

I’m delighted to note that at the Foundation reading is still an extremely popular hobby among our students. I like to think that these young people will one day have homes and shelves crammed with well-thumbed tomes, as well as shiny iPads and digital books, allowing them to consume and enjoy reading whenever and wherever it suits them best.

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