The First Virtual Reality

By McCook, Kathleen de la Pena | American Libraries, July-August 1993 | Go to article overview

The First Virtual Reality


McCook, Kathleen de la Pena, American Libraries


Paeans to books and reading have long been central to the literature of librarianship. Ironically, as information superhighways inexorably connect cyberspace, there has been a renascence of interest among librarians in books and reading, a growing celebration of the reason many of us came to the profession. Even today, applicants to library education programs are most likely to indicate "love of books" as their primary reason for seeking to enter the profession. A recent survey asked 3,393 MLS students how many nonclass-related books they had read over a two-month period. The responses indicated that reading was an important leisure activity to these prospective librarians--nearly a third had read over six books.(1)

So, librarians continue their abiding love of books and reading, even though few librarian education programs focus on adult reading or reading guidance. However, as Chelton has observed, "increasingly, librarians are answering questions that have more to do with patrons' leisure reading than their information needs."(2)

Denigrated by some, raison d'etre for others, the book has long motivated many librarians. In fact, nearly a half-century ago the "library faith" was characterized by Garceau as a "fundamental belief so generally accepted as to be often left unsaid, in the virtue of the printed word, the reading of which is good in itself, and upon the preservation of which many basic values in our civilization rest."(3)

Virtual reality has captured our attention. We forget, however., that the same effect is gained by skillful readers each time they engage the printed word. This article tooks at three aspects of the library faith--books, reading, and reading guidance--thriving today as never before amidst the enveloping cyberspace.

Celebration and study

The book, in traditional codex form, continues to fascinate. Bibliophilic writings, from Richard de Bury's Philobiblon (1599) to Robert B. Downs' Books in My Life (1985), have been a persistent theme in the bibliographic lexicon.

Probably the best known and most comprehensive enterprises that provide a formalized structure for the study and celebration of the book are the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress and its state counterparts and the American Antiquarian Society's Program in the History of the Book in American Culture. Two university centers have also recently been established: the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modem America, jointly sponsored by the University of Wisconsin/Madison and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania State University's Center for the History of the Book. Such centers are catalysts for greater understanding of the importance of books in modem society.

The Center for the Book at the Library of Congress was established in 1977 to stimulate public interest in books, reading, and libraries. Under the direction of John Y. Cole, state and regional centers now number 28; each center promotes books as well as its region's literary and intellectual heritage. "The Bonfire of Liberties: Censorship of the Humanities," cosponsored by the Texas Center for the Book and the national center, and other traveling exhibits have been viewed throughout the country.

Other recent projects of the national Center include an analysis of lifetime reading habits of Book-of-the-Month Club members; the Literary Heritage of the States project; the Head Start partnership; and the 1993 national reading promotion theme, "Books Change Lives," dedicated to Thomas Jefferson on the 250th anniversary of his birth.

Mapping book culture

The American Antiquarian Society's Program in the History of the Book in American Culture continues work on the collaborative history of the book in the United States. In his sketch of the general outlines of the history, David D. Hall, chairman of the program since its establishment in 1983, has described it as comparative, grounded in economic and social history and the geography of culture, and including printing, publishing, distribution, the book as artifact, and readers. …

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