Readers, not books, may be the endangered species of the high-technology age

ARE books doomed by the computer age? Charles (Mac) Mathias, the silver-crested Republican senator from Maryland, and Daniel J. Boorstin, the bow-tied librarian of Congress, have come up with an answer:

Books are not on the endangered- species list, but readers may be.

Like a very erudite vaudeville team, the pair got together recently on Capitol Hill to do a little soft-shoe number to the tune of ''Books in our Future.'' That is the title of a 49-page report written by Dr. Boorstin as the result of Senator Mathias's congressional authorization for a study last year. Mathias is chairman of the Joint Committee of the Library of Congress.

Mathias and Boorstin did their literary buck-and-wing number in an imposing old Senate hearing room, rife with tan marble, crystal chandeliers, rococo ceilings, and several dozen yards of maroon leather legal tomes. Behind them as a TV backdrop was a banner quoting Thomas Jefferson's poignant words to John Adams: ''I cannot live without books.'' At that time, Jefferson's own books had just been shipped from Monticello to form the foundation of a renewed Library of Congress in 1815.

But the bad news from Mathias and Boorstin is that many Americans can live without books and do. At least 23 million Americans are unable to read and at least 44 percent of adult Americans can read but don't. Only half of all Americans read some books each year, according to the Book Industry Study Group (BISG).

Boorstin points out in his study that ''the twin menaces of illiteracy and aliteracy'' endanger the book.

He also cautions, ''The threat to a knowledgeable citizenry is not from new technology. But there is a threat from our hasty readiness to exaggerate or misconceive the promise of the new technologies, which carries the assumption that the Culture of the Book is a thing of the past.''

Mathias, a political pragmatist, points out that the study was made because Congress needed to know whether it should continue to appropriate money for a traditional book-filled library or whether it should be converting to the new computer technology. ''We don't stop buying books, that's the bottom line,'' he concludes on the basis of the report.

He plans to hold oversight hearings on the subject when Congress reconvenes.

While readers may be at risk, apparently the publishing industry is not.

Boorstin has assembled an impressive list. Sales for the publishing industry jumped from $3.2 billion in 1972 to $8.8 billion in '83, according to the Bowker Annual of Library and Book Trade Information, and Book Industry Trends.

The number of book titles published annually has increased from 38,053 in 1972 to 53,380 in '83, according to Bowker's and Publishers Weekly. US expenditures on books increased by 47.8 percent from '79 to '83 ($7.3 billion to close to doubling in the last decade from 11,786 in '73 to 19,580 in '84, according to Bowker's.

The number of publishers also nearly doubled in 10 years, according to the US Bureau of the Census, from 1,250 in 1972 to 2,128 in 1982.

When one of the TV questioners at the Mathias-Boorstin show asked with a sniff if reading isn't ''elitist,'' Boorstin bridled. ''I don't think so,'' he said. ''There's no evidence that it's concentrated in the upper economic groups.''

In fact, that crash you just heard is the shattering of the stereotype of the bookworm. In his report, Boorstin cites BISG surveys, the latest in 1983. They indicate that American book readers are active, rather than passive, people, who take part in sports, politics, church, community activities. Paradoxically, retired people read less than other Americans; of those over 65, only 29 percent are book readers, compared with 50 percent of the entire population.

The BISG survey also indicates, says Boorstin, that ''women, it appears, read more than men, whites read more than other Americans, and single adults read more than married ones. White-collar workers read about a third more than blue-collar workers.''

Among children, 83 percent of the heavy readers had parents who encouraged them to read, while only 57 percent of the children who were light readers had encouragement to read from their parents. But book reading by those under 21 has declined from 75 percent to 62 percent between 1978 and '83.

Paradoxically, though, in that five-year period the percentage of heavy book readers (26 or more books in the previous six months) has increased from 18 to 28 percent.

What can be done to raise the level of literacy? Plenty, suggests Boorstin.

A random sampling: This month, the Coalition for Literacy is launching a three-year national campaign in conjunction with the Advertising Council. ''Let's Talk About It,'' a reading discussion program in libraries across the country, involves National Endowment for the Humanities scholars and citizens. ''The Voyage of Mimi,'' PBS's new science and math project, blends TV viewing with illustrated books and computer games that show how navigators and scientists work. The TV series ''Reading Rainbow'' has been advertised on the back of Kellogg's cereal boxes for children to read about as they munch.

The Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections has just received a $2.5 million appropriation to aid states in developing computer-assisted instruction and other basic skills for the more than half million prisoners, 60 percent of whom are functionally illiterate.

Millions of Americans are also familiar with the impact that TV series based on books have had on book sales and readership, from Alex Haley's ''Roots'' and Carl Sagan's ''Cosmos'' to Herman Wouk's ''Winds of War.''

Boorstin notes that new technologies, such as TV, can enhance and expand ''the Culture of the Book.'' Even computers, he stresses, have created a new book market: There are more than 6,000 books on computers and 500 periodicals on them.

Boorstin maintains there is no such thing as ''computer literacy,'' there is only literacy, or the ability to read.

But the Library of Congress is turning the new technology to its own literate ends: The automated ''Scorpio'' system provides quick access to members of Congress for the 10,000 to 20,000 bills they submit each year.

The library stores its English-language cataloging on computer tapes; this year it has been trying out the analog videodisk to store and retrieve fragile photographs and graphics. It has also been experimenting with optical digital disks to store print material in unrivaled compactness: about 300 volumes per disk.

''When this technology is perfected, it might be possible for several hundred 12-inch two-sided disks, requiring less than 10 feet of shelf space, to hold the quarter-million books and documents added to a typical research library each year,'' Boorstin notes in his report. But he cautions: ''We have yet to find a feasible alternative to the ability to learn from and enjoy the boundless treasures of the printed word. The book is always 'user friendly.' ''

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