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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 143-144-E
Division Number: V
Professional Group: Serial Publications
Joint Meeting with:
Meeting Number: 144
Simultaneous Interpretation: No

The future of serials - realism or utopia?

Hartmut Walravens
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin
Berlin, Germany


The development of electronic publications has offered the publishing industry many new options, and the extension and increasing use of the Internet promises a better and more cost-efficient coverage of the worldwide market. Libraries as providers and mediators of information feel the changes and innovation maybe even more than the producers themselves - libraries are expected to offer publications on a long-term schedule and also to archive them for the future.

Desires and expectations ran high already almost 200 years ago; during the Romantic period we find them expressed in tales, sometimes even fairy-tales, before Realism led to to early science fiction. E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), poet, draftsman and composer, known to a large audience through Jacques Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann, gave us a vision in his novel The Choosing of the Bride (Die Brautwahl), a story which is set in Berlin. The plot is simple: Young and pretty Albertine Vosswinkel, daughter of a well-to-do businessman, has three suitors. In order not to aggravate the inevitable two losers the suitors are asked to choose from three little caskets; the one who finds Albertine's miniature portrait would win the bride. The stage is so ingeniously set that the two losers would be amply rewarded by their finds which are customised to their characters and desires. The successful candidate is an artist but before the young couple gets married he is required to go on the obligatory trip to Italy, and already after a few months the correspondence of the lovers dries up, and Albertine is seen in the company of a young man whom she evidently eyes with much sympathy ... In the context of our subject we are only concerned about one episode, namely the scene where the chancellery private secretary Tusmann makes his selection:

    As the clock struck twelve, the door of the room was opened to reveal a table covered with an opulent carpet on which were standing three small caskets. The first, made of glittering gold, had upon its lid a wreath of sparkling ducats, in the middle of which stood the words: He who chooses me, let him be happy in the way he likes. The second casket was finely worked in silver. On the lid there stood among many characters from foreign tongues the words: He who chooses me will get much more than he hoped for. The third casket, carved plainly in ivory, bore the inscription: He who chooses me will possess the happiness he dreams of.

    The chancellery private secretary stepped thoughtfully up to the table, regarded the caskets carefully and read the inscriptions again and again. Soon, however, he felt himself drawn irresistibly to the graceful intertwined characters on the silver casket.

    "Just God", he cried enthusiastically, "what a lovely script! How pleasingly the Arabic here unites with the Latin hand! And 'He who chooses me will get much more than he hoped for' - have I ever hoped that Demoiselle Albertine would ever make me happy with the gift of her dear hand? Have I not rather sunk into total despair? Did I not ... in the pool ...? Well, then, here is comfort, here is my happiness! Counsellor, Demoiselle Albertine, I choose the silver casket!"

    Albertine rose and handed the chancellery private secretary a little key, with which he at once opened the casket. But how he started back when he discovered, not Albertine's picture, but a little book bound in parchment which when he opened it proved to contain nothing but blank pages. He also found a small sheet of paper bearing the words:

    Though thy toil be vain, yet hast thou won Great joy; this that thou findest Changeth thy ignorance to wisdom.

    "Just God," the secretary stammered, "a book ... no, not a book - a packet of paper, instead of the picture! All hope is gone. O defeated chancellery private secretary! It is all up with you, it is all over! Away to the frog-pond!"

    Tusmann made to depart, but the goldsmith [who is the mastermind behind the scenes] stepped into his path and said: "Tusmann, you are in error! No treasure could profit you more than that which you have found. The verses should have told you that already. Do me the favour of putting the book you took from the casket into your pocket." Tusmann did so. Now, the goldsmith went on, think of a book you would at this moment like to be carrying with you.

    "O God", said the secretary, "in a thoughtless and unchristian way I threw Thomasius's Short Introduction to Politic Policy into the pond!"

    "Reach into your pocket, take out the book," cried the goldsmith. Tusmann did as he was bid, and behold! - the book was no other than Thomasius's.

    "Ha! What is this?" cried the secretary, quite beside himself. "My dear Thomasius rescued from the depredations of vile frogs, who could never have learned anything from it!"

    "Quiet," the goldsmith interrupted, "just put the book back into your pocket." Tusmann did so. "Think," the goldsmith went on, "think now of some rare work which you have perhaps long looked for in vain, which you could discover in no library."

    "O God!" said the secretary. "As I like to cheer myself up by going to the opera now and then, I have wanted to inform myself about the noble musica and have tried in vain to get hold of a little book which sets out in an allegorical fashion the whole art of the composer and virtuoso. I mean nothing other than Johannes Beer's Musical War, or Description of the Pitched Battle between the two Heroines, Composition and Harmony, how They Took to the Field against One Another, Skirmished and after a Bloody Contest were at last Reconciled."

    "Reach into your pocket," cried the goldsmith, and the chancellery private secretary exclaimed aloud for joy when he opened the book, which had now become Johann Beer's Musical War.
    "You now see," the goldsmith said, "that through the book you found in the casket you have acquired the amplest, completest library anyone has ever possessed, and one, moreover, that you can carry about with you constantly. For if you have this remarkable book in your pocket, whenever you take it out it will become whatever work you desire to read."

    Without a glance at Albertine or the counsellor, the chancellery private secretary leaped quickly to a corner of the room, threw himself into an armchair, put the book into his pocket and took it out again, you could see from the joy that gleamed in his eyes that what the goldsmith had promised had gloriously come to pass.

Until a few years ago, E. T. Hoffmann's tale would have been considered what it is - a story with some magical elements. Today it is not a miracle any more: Certainly you would not yet achieve your aim by putting a carrier media in your pocket and think about a title to actually get it but you may load a number of titles in your e-book and then select the item you need. But this is by no means the end of the technological development. Until half a year ago I was convinced that electronic publications and especially e-books are a great achievement in the academic field but would not conquer the consumer market. In the meantime I have changed my mind because I became acquainted with e-Ink, the project currently under development at the MIT Media Lab. The specialty about this kind of e-book which is expected to reach the market in about two years is that it keeps the original shape and the advantages of the traditional media "book". The pages are covered by electronic ink the tiny particles of which may move when charged electrically. That means you may actually load a text, a picture or a book and have it on regular pages. The advantages are obvious: Once a book is loaded you do not need any energy any more, except, of course you want to use special functions like book marks, or dictionaries. The text "keeps" like with a printed book as long as necessary, without electricity. Another benefit is that you do not have to look straight at the page as with a LCD screen. That means you can read the book in bed as you are accustomed to do. You may read a book on the beach where you would have the hardest time reading anything from a LCD screen in broad sunlight. The developers are optimistic and expect such an e-Ink book to have a capacity of 10,000 titles. That means that you could carry with you a scholar's private library or a small public library - at any rate more titles than an average person will ever have time or care to read. So Hoffmann's dream seems to come true. When I said books, or titles, a specification of monographs or serials was not made. Actually, it does not matter what kind of publication you put on your e-Ink book. They may be newspapers which you load in the morning or evening to get the latest information, or gossip, or sports, in your conventional format. You may easily change the newspaper and see what the competitors have to say. And above all you will not have stacks of old newspapers to get rid of. As you have the elecronic files at your disposal in an easily readable form, there is no need to print as many things as before because you found it strenuous to read too many texts on a computer screen.

It is logical to expect that such a development will encourage publishers more and more to publish in electronic form. This will not make books so much cheaper but it will facilitate the distribution process and save enormous amounts of space. And it will make us more dependent on networks. This may revolutionise not only the publishing industry but the whole book sector. What about bookstores - they might turn into filling stations where you load the latest publications. You could do this certainly through an internet bookshop or provider. So are bookshops doomed to disappear? Maybe they will be integrated into community services: People will still need advice and motivation. It would be rather optimistic to assume that everybody will easily find the right things among the 1 million titles you offer on the net: Most people are rather helpless with just metadata. The same goes for libraries. National libraries and university libraries might be best off. The former keep the national archives and will be treasure houses of many things that cannot be found anywhere else. The latter are close to the academic staff and the researchers and may customise information services for their clientele.

But what about public libraries - they will find their role as mediators, advisors and social centres. Structural changes will be inevitable. As we are mostly concenred with serials here, the question is What is the future of serials - not with regard to the media or format but as a genre? If we look at academic publishers who still very often publish their journals in parallel editions, on paper and electronically, we can only expect that they will be forced to switch to electronic only very soon. Price increases are already such a heavy burden on most customers (many of which are libraries) that more and more subscriptions have to be cancelled. In order to cut costs the only way for publishers is to dispense with parallel printed editions. The electronic format does not require installments like issues or fascicles any more. When an article or paper is ready it will be made available. What is the use then of a serial title? Already now it happens that rather diverse items are sometimes united under the umbrella of a serial, depending on what the authors provide. More and more researchers will search by subject in large literature databases, and not for a serial title. A search or delivery profile can be much more customized to researchers' needs than a serial. So what will be the justification for serials in an electronic world? Well in some cases the title is a kind of brand name, and it may be peer reviewed. But many academic serials of standing are peer reviewed. Publishers names are brand names, too, and all products of a publisher may undergo the review process. Individual items will be searched and provided individually (also by document delivery services) and will be paid for individually, if so desired. So there will be a tendency towards many little monographs, and we may feel like getting back to Gutenberg's times when there were no serials around.

We notice a general trend already in a related field, namely standard numbering. The new identification systems are capable of expressing bibliographic relationships but publishers are not particularly interested: dumb numbers are easier to handle, and the metadata lead to the item. Also, in contrast to current practice in the print sector, different granulations may be easily covered, i.e. an article may be identified, but also parts of an article, or a hypermedia kit with links or macros. I am not proclaiming the death of serials which would be a macabre thing to do for the chairman of the Serials Section. But we will be faced with enormous structural changes. Also, if we look back in history we notice that media do not replace each other. When TV became popular people were afraid that nobody would read any more. Even more so when video shops sprang up all over the cities. CD-ROMs and internet newspapers did not kill newspapers. But even traditional media changed, and their market share decreased. So we will look optimistically to the future!


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