“digitization and its discontents”

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.

4 thoughts on ““digitization and its discontents”

  1. bowerbird

    the juicy quotes indicate a luddite underneath.
    but if you actually read the piece, the criticism
    has quite a few spot-on aspects, especially if you
    see it — as i did — as a note that google and
    its book project will only scratch the surface of
    what _really_ needs to be done, which is to digitize
    everything on paper, from every nook and cranny
    of the earth. (and i don’t mean just all the _text_
    printed on paper, i mean all the _pictures_ too,
    and the maps, genealogical charts, and so on…)
    -bowerbird

    Reply
  2. Alex Gorelik

    All of the book digitization ventures – both the open source and the proprietary model – are a laudable effort, and necessary. Vital to information accessibility and to the preservation of knowledge. If we are to see this library digitization effort through to the height of fruition however, we will also need to find a way to span all these silos in order to create a seamless ocean of data available for cross-referencing. That’s really the point of the New Yorker article.

    If we establish an open standard for sharing the data across the libraries, we will be able to overcome the concerns expressed by Grafton and will provide information access heretofore unimaginable by researchers and scholars. But, in order to do that, we need to allow these disparate databases to speak to one another. An open API for digitized library interface could help span the divide.

    Reply
  3. bowerbird

    harvard is hosting google’s scans of harvard books.
    stanford is hosting google’s scans of stanford books.
    umichigan is hosting google’s scans of umichigan books.
    (thank goodness umichigan, as a public institution,
    sees its mission to share its scans with the public.)
    is there anybody out there besides me who thinks
    this is a supremely stupid way to be proceeding?
    -bowerbird

    Reply

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