Anthony Grafton’s New Yorker piece “Future Reading” paints a forbidding picture of the global digital library currently in formation on public and private fronts around the world (Google et al.). The following quote sums it up well – ?a refreshing counterpoint to the millenarian hype we so often hear w/r/t mass digitization:
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. Over time, as more of this material emerges from copyright protection, we’ll be able to learn things about our culture that we could never have known previously. Soon, the present will become overwhelmingly accessible, but a great deal of older material may never coalesce into a single database. Neither Google nor anyone else will fuse the proprietary databases of early books and the local systems created by individual archives into one accessible store of information. Though the distant past will be more available, in a technical sense, than ever before, once it is captured and preserved as a vast, disjointed mosaic it may recede ever more rapidly from our collective attention.
Grafton begins and ends in a nostalgic tone, with a paean to the New York Public Library and the critic Alfred Kazin: the poor son of immigrants, City College-educated, who researched his seminal study of American literature On Native Grounds almost entirely with materials freely available at the NYPL. Clearly, Grafton is a believer in the civic ideal of the public library – ?a reservoir of knowledge, free to all – ?and this animates his critique of the balkanized digital landscape of search engines and commercial databases. Given where he appears to stand, I wish he could have taken a stab at what a digital public library might look like, and what sorts of technical, social, political and economic reorganization might be required to build it. Obviously, these are questions that would have required their own article, but it would have been valuable for Grafton, whose piece is one of those occasional journalistic events that moves the issue of digitization and the future of libraries out of the specialist realm into the general consciousness, to have connected the threads. Instead Grafton ends what is overall a valuable and intelligent article with a retreat into print fetishism – ?”crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables….millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books” – ?which, while evocative, obscures more than it illuminates.
Incidentally, those questions are precisely what was discussed at our Really Modern Library meetings last month. We’re still compiling our notes but expect a report soon.