Conference report: IBG Conference 2017 “The Future of Reading”

Guest post by Lena Hinrichsen and Mareike-Beatrice Stanke, JGU Mainz

The 18th annual IBG Conference from 20th to 22nd September dealt with “The Future of Reading”. In 14 presentations and workshops the relevance of reading, its future possibilities and effects of digitalization were discussed.

The first presentation by Henning Lobin (University Gießen) discussed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. After an introduction on the first three revolutions (Copernicus, Darwin, Freud), Lobin focused on digitization and examined four theses about how reading may change in the future. Firstly, the influence of the author may be eliminated because authorship is relativized due to digitization. Secondly, the dominance of writing may be eliminated because texts are enriched and tightly structured. Thirdly, reading will permeate the everyday life of people even more, so the process of reading is no longer lonely and withdrawn. Fourthly, Lobin argued, the printed book has been enshrined, leading to the belief that deep reading is quasi-religious. This elevation of the printed book to a higher level may cease.

Volker Titel (FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg) moderated a panel with Lobin, Thomas Nitz (Hugendubel), Barbara Knieling (Bundesverband Leseförderung), Arne Ackermann (Munich City Library) and Dorothea Martin (oolipo). Topics discussed included audiovisual formats (e.g. Ravensburger’s TipToi), the socialization of reading in the age of tablets and the further development of layouts for websites with the help of eye tracking. A large number of the discussants agreed that one usually can get by without deep reading – though there was not a consensus which type of reading was meant.

Afterwards, the Waldemar Bonsels Foundation awarded a prize to the City Library of Mannheim, which won the competition “Reading, Sharing, Liking”. The evening ended with the public lecture “Looking at the day after tomorrow” by futurologist Bernd Flessner (FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg). By refuting some of the famous negative prognoses (Orville Wright, 1909: “No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris” or Bill Gates, 1981: “640kB ought to be enough for anybody”), Flessner explained that the question is not “if” certain developments will happen, but “when”. This leads to the question of the resulting sociocultural developments. Subsequently, Flessner presented a possible scenario for 2037. According to Flessner, it is possible that everybody will become a producer and a consumer, so that today’s production, editorial, diffusion and distribution channels will disappear. In addition, Flessner presented the possibility of convergences, e.g. a book originally by Thomas Mann could be automatically transformed into the writing style of Günter Grass. In the future, he argued, the book and all types of print products will mainly be prestigious objects.

Christine Garbe (University of Cologne) presented The European Literacy Policy Network (ELINET). ELINET provides European best practice models for those who are trying to minimize the illiteracy rate of children and young people in the European countries. To that end, ELINET also published the European Declaration of the Right to Literacy, in which they describe literacy as a human right. From 109 examples, Garbe presented seven projects from Spain, the UK, Cyprus, Croatia and Germany to the group.

Afterwards, video clips of pupils from Munich were shown, depicting how they answered questions such as “Where are you reading? Which book are you currently reading? What are your reading preferences?” The testimonials were then combined with a discussion by experts: Heike Schütz (Akademie für Ganztagsschulpädagogik), Albert Hoffmann (Antolin/Onilo), Hermann Ruch (State Institute for School Quality and Education Research, Munich), and Philippe Wampfler (University of Zurich) discussed the subject “Reading for school or school for reading?”, including questions of how to increase the level of literacy at school, what books are appropriate for school, and how reading can be enriched with new media.

Christine Khalaf and Harald Henzler then moderated an open discussion on the plenum’s experiences with the previously tested social reading platform, currently available in a closed-beta version. Not only advantages of a digital reading circle were discussed – such as the possibility to exchange ideas and interpretive approaches with a closed community – but participants also noted negative aspects: e. g. in the comment section, a common opinion easily emerges; unpopular opinions were not noticed or were not discussed. Moreover, the loss of facial expressions and other body language was criticized.

In his lecture “What do electronic books smell like?”, Steffen Meier (Digital Publishing Report) presented the written word as a technology which continues to develop. Writing became prevalent because it is transportable, archivable and representable. Furthermore, Meier sees the eBook or the digitization of a printed original as a bridge technology. Through the change in technology, the role of the reader, author and publisher changes; a fluid reading is possible (e. g.interactive WhatsApp novels) and the reception becomes more visual. In the end, Meier prognosticated for the year 2050 that books will no longer be the main source of information; books will rather figure as antique objects. He also pointed out that the next decade will be characterized by increasing oral communication (see Alexa, Siri, Cortana).

The evening program was entitled “The Networked Reader – Challenges for Publishers between Utopia and Dystopia”. Frank Sambeth (Random House), Felicitas von Lovenberg (Piper), Steffen Meier, Klaus-Rainer Brintzinger (Director of the University Library of Munich) and Torsten Casimir (Chief Editor Börsenblatt) discussed the future of publishers and bookstores. Casimir pointed out that, despite the well-structured book trade in Germany, the omnipresence of the book is in danger, and the books sold online are now economically most interesting. Sambeth underlined that the book market is stable by price and quantity, but prices will rise as soon as buyers are lost. Von Lovenberg said that the development of the mass-market book mainly happened in twentieth century because people then had more leisure time. Tanja Graf (Literaturhaus) pointed out the provocative thesis that libraries are “paper museums”, which Brintzinger disagreed by the statement that there was an increasing “run” on libraries. Meier underlined the special feature of the book as a disturbance-free medium in an increasingly networked world. Brintzinger also mentioned a trend in science: the more research-oriented a scientific discipline is, the more unlikely it is that texts will be published as a monograph. Furthermore, the power of letters seems to be partly broken as they become replaced by mathematical language (numerals, formulas, symbols). In the end, the fixed book price law was discussed. Casimir underlined its importance, but he also said that there are attempts in the EU to rescind the law.

The third day began with a lecture by Martina Tittel (Nicolaische Buchhandlung, Berlin). After presenting a possible scenario for everyday life in the future, she emphasized that books in the future would be a market niche, which would be filled with thematic bookshops or “themed clubs”.

In her lecture “Reading in the Library of the Future”, Sonia Abun-Nasr (Kantonsbibliothek, St. Gallen) presented the four theses developed during the conference (1 Libraries as a place to stay and meet, 2 New business models emerging/research data management, 3 The future of libraries lies in the digital, 4 Reading in libraries cannot disappear in the future) and contrasted her own theses. For example, the design of spaces and rooms is becoming more important. Libraries are now and in the future concerned about their self-understanding, since they have to reexamine their core tasks. Likewise, the remote future of libraries, according to Abun-Nasr, is unknown and is not necessarily connected with the cultural technique of reading. In order to illustrate the change in libraries, Abun-Nasr introduced the reading room of the library in St. Gallen over the course of time and explained the changes. She both examined public and academic libraries. At the end, Abun-Nasr underlined that planning for libraries does not fund hypes but is a form of long-term planning that ensures flexibility and multiple forms of zoning.

Ulrich Störiko-Blume (ProjektAgentur, Munich) gave the concluding lecture “Once upon a time there is/will be”. Störiko-Blume had collected impressions throughout the conference and presented them using a digital map. He suggested that we should leave our safe harbor across the “stream of time” from the city “St. Change” to the “Chance Élysée” to be able to use the “workshops of the future”, so we could profit from a “sea […] [of] possibilities”.


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