A quick post to refer you to this outstanding article in the New Yorker, entitled Future Reading: Digitization and Its Discontents which covers the history of libraries and archiving, an overview of the Microsoft and Google digitization projects, the information explosion problem (e.g., “scholars have to deal with too much information for millennia”), and several other topics.
The Google Library Project has so far received mixed reviews. Google shows the reader a scanned version of the page; it is generally accurate and readable. But Google also uses optical character recognition to produce a second version, for its search engine to use, and this double process has some quirks. In a scriptorium lit by the sun, a scribe could mistakenly transcribe a “u” as an “n,” or vice versa. Curiously, the computer makes the same mistake. If you enter qualitas—an important term in medieval philosophy—into Google Book Search, you’ll find almost two thousand appearances. But if you enter “qnalitas” you’ll be rewarded with more than five hundred references that you wouldn’t necessarily have found.
The supposed universal library, then, will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money. The real challenge now is how to chart the tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another and then to learn to navigate the new landscapes they are creating.
And yet we will still need our libraries and archives. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have written of the so-called “social life of information”—the form in which you encounter a text can have a huge impact on how you use it. Original documents reward us for taking the trouble to find them by telling us things that no image can. Duguid describes watching a fellow-historian systematically sniff two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks. […] Marginal annotations, which abounded in the centuries when readers usually went through books with pen in hand, identify the often surprising messages that individuals have found as they read. Many original writers and thinkers—Martin Luther, John Adams, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—have filled their books with notes that are indispensable to understanding their thought.
Sit in your local coffee shop, and your laptop can tell you a lot. If you want deeper, more local knowledge, you will have to take the narrower path that leads between the lions and up the stairs. There—as in great libraries around the world—you’ll use all the new sources, the library’s and those it buys from others, all the time. You’ll check musicians’ names and dates at Grove Music Online, read Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” on Early English Books Online, or decipher Civil War documents on Valley of the Shadow. But these streams of data, rich as they are, will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you. The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books.
Wow, the folks at The New Yorker can write.