Do we need books, papers and a library?

books_optEditor’s Note: This perspective by historian Keith Parker adds to the ongoing conversation within and beyond our publishing ministry about the balanced use of print and web technology.

Do we really need books, news-papers, a library or bookstores in this modern technological age? The short answer is, “Absolutely yes!”

But why? School kids have their text-books on Chromebook notebooks, and we can get news on the computer and our cell phones or other online means. We can read books on Kindle or E-readers. We can “save trees” by skipping paper of all forms.

These and many more arguments are tossed about to claim that technology has replaced the old-fashioned means of sharing information and learning. But wait, let us be careful and learn from history, both past and present about the role of shared information.

In 1439 the Gutenberg Press provided a means to have the mass printing of books and papers. This invention provided the most profound transformation of the actual structure of society. Until then, most written material was done by hand and only a few people were literate. They controlled the information, ideas and direction of everyone’s life.

As the middle class learned to read and information could cross borders, the role of the written word increasingly helped free people from ignorance, and the control by powerful people or organizations. The Reformation and Renaissance could happen only with the sharing of ideas and information. People could read in their own language and communicate across borders.

When Martin Luther translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into German (1522), he helped unify multiple local dialects into a common language. Likewise, the contemporary translation of scripture into English by William Tyndale made available to average folks their own copies — an act that cost Tyndale his life.

Since those days the use of information has been a major part of controlling masses, of seeking and finding freedom, of finding spiritual direction and all sorts of communication between peoples. Over the centuries societies have shared their values and ideologies by the printed and spoken word.

The first thing most political revolutions do is to destroy those forms of printing. Only “approved” books or papers can be shared or sold. Every totalitarian country seeks to control what information its people have.

For example, some years ago while working in Europe I was asked to help a medical doctor in Communist East Germany get certain psychiatric texts used in West Germany. In order to pass his psychiatry exam — the same as in the West — he had to learn from those books, which were required, but locked up by the East German Communist party as dangerous.

The founding of our United States was heavily influenced by the revolutionary ideas from France and other lands. Freedom of the press was a major amendment to our Constitution and cherished by our forefathers and mothers. Books, newspapers, religious literature, political pamphlets and many other forms of communication were cherished parts of their lives.

So why do we need printed material in the day of smart phones and Google? For a simple reason: the Internet is extremely vulnerable. We do not like to think of what a solar storm producing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) can do to our Internet, our satellites and electrical systems. A recent study from the National Academy of Sciences indicates the cost would be in the trillions.

Other experts show that there is a 12 percent chance of a big sun storm in the next decade. The last major solar storm was in 1859, long before we were so dependent on electronics, although it did destroy many telegraph systems.

Data stored in the “cloud” is not as concrete as a book. Such a natural EMP occurrence cannot be stopped or helped but could profoundly impact all of our communication with each other, our schools and the sharing of vital information.

Worse than that, in my opinion, is the ability to sabotage as in modern cybercrime. I refer to not only hacking into large “safe” systems, but also the ability to control what “information” goes online. Already, defensive measures are being researched and taken to try to prevent some rogue nation from creating a man-made EMP via a nuclear blast in the atmosphere. Hopefully such massive, destructive measures can be prevented.

But my concern is the vulnerability of our dependence upon information gained only from the Internet and books online, all easily changed at will, and to re-direct ideas about history, values and basic news.

In my lifetime, the many “revolutions” in many lands have been begun by burning books and taking over newspapers, radio and TV. Only the ideology of the victors is allowed. Education becomes indoctrination to one ideology or religion, no longer tools with which one can examine and compare different ideas.

China has a massive surveillance and content control system with a censor who is responsible for material, both online and offline, that might be seen as dangerous to social security and public order. The reportedly massive numbers of jailed cyber-dissidents and journalists are accused of “communicating with groups abroad,” “signing online petitions,” and “calling for reform and an end to corruption.” Although some hackers can get around forbidden websites, at great risk, the average person is not capable of such.

We have great freedom to read not only the news but also differing opinions, such as letters to the editor or opposing articles. How vital are those books in each library as they tell the stories, histories and lives of days gone by? We learn how they coped with changing worlds and new ideas. How special it is when a student can read from a book a differing opinion from what the class notes said and then ask the teacher about it?

In 1970 while I was at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, a new student showed up at the university lunchroom. He had just escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia with his two most precious items: his life and one book from the free world. I will never forget that look on his face sitting with that book clutched to his chest, now in a free land with thousands of books around us for the unlimited reading.

We take for granted our access to books, papers, bookstores and libraries. People around the world are hungry for shared information, especially in their spiritual traditions.

Many years ago the late Gerhard Claas, a Baptist leader from Germany, was criticized for “destroying” a Bible during a trip to the Soviet Union. The critic failed to tell the whole story. Folks came from many little isolated churches begging for Bibles and he divided his one copy into the different books, giving each group one part with the understanding that they would rotate with each other.

I hope books or Bibles do not become so rare that we must share them this way, but I send this call to fight for the freedom of the press that can’t be easily changed by the “delete” key, for support of our libraries and bookstores, for reading different opinions and ideas, for using the tools we learn in serious education to discern right from wrong.

Technology is great, but not our modern god. It is only a tool. Technology is good and many prefer that medium, but it is vulnerable. Yes! We really do need books, newspapers, a library and bookstores! NFJ

By G. Keith Parker

G. Keith Parker, a former professor at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, is a well-published historian. He lives in Dunn’s Rock, N.C. This article first appeared in The Transylvania Times in Brevard, N.C.