Paperbacks and Content Collapse

Over the past few weeks, I stuck my nose down a rabbit hole (experimental paperbacks of the 1960s and 1970s) that gave me glimpses of a deeper warren (the history of the book) and that expanded my sense of an even grander and more complex topic (content collapse in media). Jeffrey Schnapp and Adam Michaels‘ book, The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback, explores how book packager Jerome Agel, graphic designer Quentin Fiore, and Marshall McLuhan kicked off a series of experiments in publishing using the paperback book format to explore and demonstrate the expanding, interconnected mass media universe of the 1960s. Their collaboration, The Medium Is the Massage, presented McLuhan’s ideas in a more accessible and modern format than his more academic works (e.g., Understanding Media).

As I read The Electric Information Age Book‘s analysis of The Medium Is the Massage, I realized I should pause my reading of the former book so I could dip into the latter one that Schnapp and Michaels discuss. I was happy to find a copy of The Medium Is the Massage in our library (getting a copy of The Electric Information Age Book, though, required interlibrary loan and led me to a pristine copy courtesy of Columbia University). Schnapp and Michaels’ book is also a catalog of other experimental paperbacks that Agel published with McCluhan, Carl Sagan, and many others. While learning about the very conscious efforts by Agel, Fiore, and McLuhan to embrace the elements of the modern, scrambled and interconnected media landscape and to break free of the traditional linear look and feel of printed books, it occurred to me that this history connects up with a current concern of mine about how container collapse is altering and undermining our users’ perceptions of traditional formats that libraries spotlight in so many ways (how we organize our collections, how we provide access to those collections, and how we teach our users to find items in our collections). I’m still not sure how as a UX librarian I should respond in my design work to the problem of container collapse, but now I know that this problem stretches back farther than the birth of the web and that the notion of what a book is and what is could be is in itself a complicated example of one kind of container collapse. I’m a little scared of what I imagine to be the scale of the next rabbit hole that is suggested in my journey: the history of the book (and the endless scholarship and debates about “what is a book?”)