For some time I’ve been perplexed by the way both pro-digitization and pro-book people talk about digitizing books. A crude characterization of the ways in which the two sides depict the argument as having two sides might look like this:
pro-digitization: Look, I can access all these wonderful old materials without leaving my armchair!
pro-book: Those aren’t books; you can’t feel the paper and breathe in their smell!
pro-digitization: But we can create a universal library!
pro-book: You’re not creating a library, you’re destroying libraries!
pro-digitization: Nyah nyah!
And there you go. The digitization folks talk about access and the book folks talk about being in the presence of the object. Neither side tends to present a more nuanced sense of how they might each have something to offer the other, or to recognize that there might be other considerations and uses at stake.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, consider the most recent salvos in this inanity: the op-eds from Tristram Hunt and James Gleick. Tristram Hunt’s “Online is fine, but history is best hands on” was published in The Observer on July 3rd. In it, Hunt argued that the digital is not only not fine, but an impediment to studying history:
Yet when everything is down-loadable, the mystery of history can be lost.Why sit in an archive leafing through impenetrable prose when you can slurp frappucino while scrolling down Edmund Burke documents?
But it is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent: its rhythms and cadences, the relationship of image to word, the passion of the argument or cold logic of the case. Then there is the serendipity, the scholar’s eternal hope that something will catch his eye. Perhaps another document will come up in the same batch, perhaps some marginalia or even the leaf of another text inserted as a bookmark. There is nothing more thrilling than untying the frayed string, opening the envelope and leafing through a first edition in the expectation of unexpected discoveries. None of that is possible on an iPad.
This is such ridiculous tripe, it’s hard to know where to start. The basis of his argument seems to be that access diminishes value: if you can come across this stuff too easily, you won’t really have earned understanding it. In fact, James Gleick’s op-ed, “Books and Other Fetish Objects” (New York Times, July 17th), takes it down pretty nicely: “I’m not buying this. I think it’s sentimentalism, and even fetishization. It’s related to the fancy that what one loves about books is the grain of paper and the scent of glue.” (A point of clarification: that the link to http://smellofbooks.com/ is there in the NYT piece; I’m not sure I’ve seen them do that kind of bloggy commentary before, but kudos to Gleick for getting it in there.)
Gleick’s piece isn’t all snark, far from it. His main point is that
It’s a mistake to deprecate digital images just because they are suddenly everywhere, reproduced so effortlessly. We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information — not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue.
He makes another, excellent point about the value of such digital repositories as London Lives: “They enrich cyberspace, particularly because without them the online perspective is so foreshortened, so locked into the present day.” That’s a key point, I think, especially for those of us who study the past; it’s easy to lose sight of the past, to rewrite it to suit present needs.
As you can guess, I find much more that is compelling in Gleick’s point of view than I do in Hunt’s. But Gleick goes astray in the sentence that immediately follows the passage in the block quote: “A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.”
“It was never the parchment that mattered.”
Now if all you’re interested in is the text, the words on the page, then maybe the parchment might not matter. The Magna Carta matters beyond its material presence, that is certainly true. But no text exists outside of its material manifestation. And this is where the pro-digitization folks seem blind to me. So much of that rhetoric has focused on access: let’s digitize these books/manuscripts/bits of paper and parchment so that more people can read them. And that is a great thing, it really is, especially when they are open access and available to folks who might not be able to travel far and wide to research libraries and who might not have the right credentials to get into those libraries. That sort of access is radical.
But access is not all that digitization can do for us. Why should we limit ourselves to thinking about digital facsimiles as being akin to photographs? Why should we think about these artifacts in terms only of the texts they transmit? Let’s instead think about digitization as a new tool that can do things for us that we wouldn’t be able to see without it. Let’s use digitization not only to access text but to explore the physical artifact. What would be the book equivalent of the extreme zooms, as you have in Google’s Art Project’s depiction of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or in the alternate lighting view of their image of Chris Ofili’s “No Woman, No Cry”? Could we have digitized books that let us virtually unsew the leaves and examine the formes in which they were printed? Could we strip black ink off of pages to let us better see the watermarks and chainlines? Could we alternate between regular light and raking light so that we can see the impression left by bearing type? Those are pretty tame suggestions off the top of my head. What could we come up with if we put some open-minded bibliographers and keen coders in a room together?
This post has gone on long enough, but I’ll scout down some examples of what we cannot see when we think about digitization as being only about text and post them next time.
(A note about the images: The top is a screenshot of the zoomed-in “Starry Night”; the bottom is a screenshot of a zoomed-in detail of “No Woman, No Cry” showing the woman’s tears of photos of Stephen Lawrence. Go to Google Art Project and see the paintings for yourself.)