The Library of Congress’ International Summit of the Book, Part 1

A very long time ago (the first week of December), I attended the International Summit of the Book, held by the Library of Congress. The program covered one and a half days, with discussions and perspectives on the past, present, and future of the book. I attended on the first day.

Before returning to my notes, written on the day, I remember most clearly the discussion that took place between library directors from many different national libraries in countries like Spain, Russia, Peru, South Africa, and Great Britain. Another session that sticks in my mind is the conversation with Elizabeth Eisenstein, one of the most well-known scholars of book history.

The welcome included introductions by James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, Hon. John B. Larson (CT), U.S. House of Representatives, and Hon. Jack Reed (RI), U.S. Senate. They mentioned ideas like “storehouses,” “fortresses of knowledge,” and that libraries embody the ideals of democracy. Surprising (to me) statistics:

  • Illiterate adults make approximately 50% less than literate adults.
  • 30% of college graduates in the United States never read another book.

This introduction raised the questions:

  • What is the definition of illiteracy?
  • How does digital literacy fit into literacy programs and the recognition of the problems of illiteracy? One has to be able to read to be digitally literate, since digital information is still so dependent on the written language (can a person find the information s/he needs online without being able to read?).

The keynote speech took place directly after the introductions. Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the new one, not the ancient) gave a brief overview of the ancient and modern history of the book, and introduced the ideas of textual fixity, linked internet data, and knowledge revolutions. As an ancient historian, I particularly enjoyed his references to Herodotus and Byblos, a Phoenician export city. Serageldin posited that all changes in book technologies follow similar processes. That is,

  1. use of old technology
  2. development of new technology
  3. use of both technologies side by side, with old tech still dominant until
  4. the new technology supersedes the old.

He noted that the book has already survived the radio, movies, TV, the internet, and mobile technology, and believes that books are still necessary for the maintenance and development of language.


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