Speaking Volumes: Make Book on the Staying Power of Tomes

By Manley, Will | American Libraries, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Speaking Volumes: Make Book on the Staying Power of Tomes


Manley, Will, American Libraries


Our tour of 100 years of American Libraries brings us to the 1950s. Conventional historical wisdom portrays the '50s as a boring, uneventful era sandwiched between the triumphant '40s and the tumultuous '60s.

Social historians have highlighted conformity as a very strong value in the '50s, which came in part from the rise of network television. By the end of the decade there was a television set in just about every American living room. ABC, CBS, and NBC combined to create a homogenous national culture. Everyone watched the same shows, worshipped the same celebrities, and bought the same products.

Television-watching became so pervasive in the 1950s that librarians began to worry for the first time about the future of the book. Before the advent of television, books and libraries were assumed to be the permanent cornerstones of democratic civilization. In the first half of the 20th century, librarians took the future for granted. The '50s began our modern era of professional anxiety.

In the October 1957 ALA Bulletin (precursor to American Libraries), 1952-53 ALA President Robert B. Downs wrote a long and very important article titled "Books Are Here to Stay" (p. 665-672). You don't write an article about the staying power of the book unless you're just a wee bit worried about it.

After pointing out that for 500 years changes to the basic typographic format of the book were relatively minor, Downs asserts, "No longer can we complacently assume that the book world ... will go on for the next five centuries, or even the next 25 years, without profound alterations." He goes on to say, "A generation ago we had no television, the radio was in its infancy ... talking moving pictures were new, FM had not been invented, nor had hi-fi been discovered."

Boob-tube blues

Downs then cites the opinion of experts whose pessimism about the future of books is every bit as intense as today's hand-wringers. …

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Speaking Volumes: Make Book on the Staying Power of Tomes
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