On books and electricity

This guest-post comes from Louise Gallorini (American University of Beirut) and reflects on the value of holding an actual, physical, paper book in your hands. Digitization is not always the solution, as Louise reminds us! You can visit her English and French blogs.

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Last week I went to work at my department, the Department of Arabic Languages and Near Eastern studies in the American University of Beirut. The graduate students’ room has recently had a makeover: nice desks, great bright and warm lights, and a good internet connexion (in Beirut this is something rare and highly appreciated). Given how crowded the library is, and that we can’t reserve spots, it’s nice to have a space where you can safely leave computers and books. Being on campus, it also allows you to plug into the digital library and access its resources directly, without having to put in your ID and password every time.

A Library Cat enjoying one of the nice, new desks at AUB

Some of the other PhD students were already there, one of them trying to find a book online. She was telling us that she had been trying to find it for almost an hour now, and that even on some non-very-legit-looking site that seemed to hosts tons of academic resources in a not-very-legal way, she had a hard time finding it. Innocently I asked her then if by any chance our library couldn’t order the book? She answered in a breath “Actually they have it, I just can’t bother enough to go down and get it”. (4 flights of stairs and some 30 metres separate us from the library). We all laughed of course… And I suddenly remembered a post I’d recently read online, about exactly this subject.

This post was about the digitalisation and use of sources on this very website I’d recently stumbled upon. It had made me feel a little bit weird: according to it, most people at university don’t bother anymore with real books, and just get the PDF version of things instead – and the author seemed to think this was a good thing. It also said that even if people did go to the actual library, they would still act the usual play, that is, sit in front of their computers. My first reaction was disbelief. Really, did we all do that now? True, most students in the libraries I’ve seen nowadays are stuck on their computers, but that’s usually medical or engineering students, right? And … Surely if the library had the actual books they needed, they would go and get them, as I did?

Well, it turns out the post was more spot-on than I thought.

Though most of us grad students do use PDFs night and day, we are also seen carrying books around all day, and leafing through them even when seating in front of their computers. Are we all behind things then, while this particular PhD student I’ve mentioned got the winds of change right in time? 

I had thought that we had reached a nice equilibrium between the different versions of resources available: getting the books for those who are not digitalised (yet?) or at least no searchable by key words, or just out of pleasure of manipulating a physical book – while doing as much as we could online, to save time (and muscles). Is this equilibrium only wishful thinking on my part, a precarious situation more like a last whiff of the past before the full digitalisation of everything? That would make me sad. I understand most people wouldn’t care, so maybe there will be small communities of hard core fans of physical books, gathering every now and then pretending to be 20th century scholars in a dusty library, a bit like these groups of people regularly meeting for sword-fights, medieval style?

In this case, my personal situation is first due to an unconsciously nostalgic wish: I basically signed on a PhD program to have 5 more years of excuses to get free and rare books from a library. I grew up with no internet (only late in high school did we get a 30-min per day connexion), but with plenty of books. Hard habits got stuck that way. Having access to a library is the first requirement of me living anywhere – except in the Arabian deserts, an environment which I love so much that I can make an exception for (I will then only bring a full suitcase of books with me, and so consider myself to be happily self-reliable).

It can be objected then that being on PhD program, I can get books free from my computer as well, at least most of them, and I don’t even have to leave my room. Maybe I could have just stayed at my parent’s place? Too bad, I actually moved countries for this PhD … And living in a different environment does teach me many things on both academic and non-academic levels.

I also have a medical and structural reasons to stick to physical books: because I got eye-surgery, I can’t work too long on a computer (and no amount of special glasses, screen colours, or special softwares can change that). So I do have to use books, which take a much longer time to hurt my eyes. And if I do get PDFs of interesting-looking articles, I usually print them right away. I also love scribbling things by hand on their margins. I somehow remember things better that way. The PDF software allows you to add comments throughout a text, and it’s very convenient for articles you have to submit, rework, re-send, etc … But I love nothing more than scribbling on a piece of paper.

As for the structural reason, it’s mainly due to where I live, Lebanon: it’s a fun and interesting place on many levels, with unique peculiarities such as daily power cuts. If you don’t have enough money to get a generator or you can’t be on campus (where they have plenty of those), you are stuck at home with 3 hours of no electricity, no internet, and possibly no working lift, every day. In summer it can get worse – I’ve seen 6 to 8 hours with nothing. So it’s a good idea to dedicate then a “cafe budget”: you get your books and your computer and settle in some cafe for over 3 hours. There they usually have a (often shaky) internet connection, and a generator. Or … It’s a good idea to have physical books and printed articles. I have sometimes reading sessions by candle light in my bedroom, like a real old-school orientalist, and I must say it’s not the worst of my experiences. 

Louise together with Another Library Cat, making the most of a power outage

On those days, I have the sensation of getting the best of both worlds: perusing old books in old languages in the romantic way of the pre-Edward Saidian scholars, while having access to the tremendous post-everything knowledge from all over the world, a click away, whenever I get electricity back.

2 thoughts on “On books and electricity

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