fetishizing books and textualizing the digital

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!

pro-book: Pfft!

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.)


  1. Anupam Basu

    While it might be obvious that a certain fetishistic quality attaches to the book or manuscript as physical object, we also run the risk of a more subtle fetishization in the realm of digital texts. It is true that digitization offers immeasurable benefits in terms of improving access, but it introduces its own artifacts, its own conditions of usage that need to be interrogated. The implicit transformation of a digital object into “information,” as in Gleick’s piece – information that can then be copied and circulated, at last “freed” from its physical context – implies a naive separation and privileging of content over form that can be as fetishistic as the insistence that form and content are forever inseparable. We do not always consult the manuscript of the Magna Carta or read Shakespeare in the original quartos, but whether we read them in a modern print edition or on the web, an acute awareness of form, of the original conditions of the production of these texts should inform our readings. In many ways, this sense of the cultural place of a work is something that we risk overlooking if we merely focus on a text as abstract and infinitely duplicable “information” – a digital thing-in-itself.

    • Sarah Werner

      This is a wonderful point: separating content from form (let alone privileging the former over the latter) is as much a fetish as yoking the two together in one material container. Thanks for highlighting that. And, of course, in all of this needs to be the recognition that the digital is physical . To imagine that the digital somehow frees information from its physical context, as is suggested in Gleick’s piece, is as wrong as its opposite; it’s a different physical context, not an absence of physical context.

  2. P. J. Grath

    Restricting access and keeping texts available only to a small group doesn’t increase the value of the words or images, but there is still something magical about actual, physical, material, original works. (Choose your own adjective.) When I read text from an 18th-century book online, it doesn’t give me the shivers I get from holding the battered, leatherbound volume in my hands. All my life I saw reproductions of famous paintings, and it was nothing like the experience of finally standing in front of them in museums. I don’t think this is fetishism. I think that for the material creatures we are, every remove from original moves us further from what we feel is reality, further into intellectual abstraction. The intellectual content carries through the removes, but there is associated but different value in what is left behind, and I for one don’t want to lose it.

    When this conversation is framed as an either/or debate, we are offered a false dilemma.

    • Sarah Werner

      I agree that there is something that is unmistakeably different about encountering a physical object in personal rather than working with a digital surrogate. And your point about reproductions of paintings is a key one: just because we see a reproduction doesn’t mean that we won’t go see, and love, the physical painting. My own hunch is that the exact opposite can happen: seeing the reproductions can awake a hankering to go see the original work of art.

      I’m intrigued by your point that our responses are keyed to our own physical manifestations. I certainly argue that when I write about theatrical performance: part of what generates our response to the written roles is seeing live bodies akin to our own acting those characters on stage. I’ll need to think more about what I think that means for digital surrogation and material texts. Thanks for bringing this up!

  3. hd

    The thing that I find fascinating about this divide is the way in which the “smell of the archive” functions as a shorthand code for a fuller, richer sensory engagement with texts, while the digital medium is assumed to be devoid of such a sensorium. Book certainly have smells, ones that, I, as a scholar, am very interested in exploring) but so, too, does technology. (am i the only one who is sometimes nostalgic for the scent of a floppy disk?) And the way that a smell is perceived by a reader is hardly a “pure” engagement with a historical moment of the past. The smell of the archive includes all kinds of scents, not just those of “old books.” Nor is it clear what a modern nose is to make of such an “old book smell.” Surely, readers in the past, if they valued the scent of the book, valued it for something different than its “mustiness”! Electronic mediums offer their own sensory engagement with the text–the haptic connection to the screen of the ipad, the whir of the fan on the laptop, and yes, even the scent of that latte sipped while scrolling… we just don’t know yet how these sensory engagements are shaping reading practices. Parchment matters, as do touch screens.

    • Sarah Werner

      This is brilliant, Holly! You know more than anyone else I do about what and how smell signifies, so thanks for pointing that out. I’ve always been driven nuts by the cliche of the musty book smell. My books don’t smell musty, nor do most of the ones at the Folger! But I hadn’t thought about the way that smell is standing in for all sorts of physical and nostalgic interactions.

      And, yes, I remember that floppy disk smell, all the way back to when floppy disks were floppy!

    • Anupam Basu

      As someone who misses black/green and white CGA monitors, the squeaky noise of 1200bps modems and soft floppy disks from the eighties, I love this point.

      And of course, books are a technology in themselves. An example I often use when introducing undergraduate classes to early modern print culture was that print is like broadband for the sixteenth century. It was something that suddenly enlarged the public domain by orders of magnitude. Ideas could suddenly be put “out there,” issues debated and threshed out on a scale not possible before. Many early modern broadsides and pamphlets remind me of the blog as a form in their almost spontaneous, provisional tone rather than the kind of solemn finality we tend to associate with the “book.”

  4. Bill Tozier

    In my (completely para-academic) decade involved in amateur digitization, I’ve noticed a couple of more subtle tropes and implicit assumptions.

    First is the problem (faced by both “sides”) caused by the myths of authenticity and authority. My wife and I used to spend a lot of time working with Distributed Proofreaders; seven or eight years back, it was innovative and interesting as a way of correcting errors introduced by OCR. But it was originally set up to feed into Project Gutenberg, and suffers still from onerous ritual because Gutenberg’s mission and sensibility, which you might think of as a mix of liberation theology through ASCII and explicit Platonism. Gutenberg, you see, only has one edition (or version, or variation) at a time of a given “work”.

    As a result, in the early days of Project Gutenberg (and I think in the background still), the texts of classics are “updated” and “improved”, without any notion of the variations between editions or printings in the originals. At least for “classics”, what’s available online is some kind of weird amalgam, a new edition in itself.

    While Distributed Proofreaders helped a bit by keeping the page scans on hand, there is still a frustrating and philosophically troubling sense there among the volunteers that they’re trying to make the text right. That when we’re “done”, the book is the book. This is something the big academic digitization projects (EEBO comes to mind) also seem to suffer from, often failing to take into account variation in the original documents. It’s certainly something that Mass Digitization suffers from; who would imagine you’d ever want to scan two copies of a 1900s novel?

    Of course the illustrations, and the advertising endmatter, and the marginalia and such are different… but they’re not the book.

    And so on. You can see where this goes, eventually: secondary scans are useful as “checks” of digitized “works”, &c &c.

    The second, deeper problem both “sides” face is related, but not quite the same: the idea of “done”. That a “digitized book” could ever be a static document, even if it includes in some sense the pages from a single print copy, is troubling. Just look at the difference between changing what’s on a printed page (which would entail editing and reprinting) and in a transcribed text file, or PDF, or even a bitmap image. Is a book page “scanned” before or after the color correction and despeckling are done on the image? What if it’s not straight? or creased or worm-eaten?

    What I’m hoping to see (where “hoping” involves actually trying to do work to make it arise) is at least a highlighting, and eventually a breakdown of the sense of permanence of digitized works.

    I’ve gone on a while, but my points are there lurking what you’ve mentioned above, too: a scan of a single (unique) van Gogh doesn’t bring these things up. But I have here on the shelf (as a reminder) two copies of an unremarked John Kendrick Bangs novel, same Worldcat info and title page, but in different bindings, and with different numbers of illustrations.

    • Sarah Werner

      Great points here, thanks. The turning of a copy into an edition that digitization invites is one of the things that drives me nuts. It might be inevitable–who’s going to pay for digitizing all 82 copies of the Folger’s First Folios?–but we could be more upfront about its consequences. As for the idea of “done,” those are wonderful points that you make. They coincide in part with the mistake of folks thinking that digitization is not physical, I think: these books don’t magically turn into digital texts, but are processed in a series of steps, each portion of which is worth thinking about in terms of how it shapes the object (book or digitization) and what it conveys about its process and use.

      All of this makes me think that if scholars knew more about the work of digitization and the study of physical texts, there would be much less dismissal of each others’ work and more interesting collaborations.

  5. Jay Savage

    I would take Bill Tozier’s point a step further and say that part of the problem is that neither side is willing to admit that digital artifacts are, in fact, artifacts (artefacts?), with their own [book] histories, their own tales to tell of themselves. A Project Gutenberg edition is precisely a new edition. So is a Walt Whitman Archive or Rossetti Archive facsimile edition. For some reason, though, no one on either side is willing to admit that; people seem to want to treat digitization as if it is–or at least as if it attempts to be–some sort of mystical conduit that gives the reader unmediated access to…something. Some of the most vociferous technophobes I know have copies of the Norton Facsimile of the first folio on their bookshelves: copies aren’t bad, only digital copies. (As an aside; collation isn’t new concern of the digital, either, as Hinman clearly showed in the Norton Facsimile.) This boggles my mind but it speaks, I think, to the ways in which digital technologies have been misrepresented by their proponents. Greg, of course, warned of the potential misuses of reproductions at the dawn of the photostat (and rightly so), but earlier reprographic techniques weren’t perceived as threatening because they didn’t present themselves as replacements, but rather as adjuncts.

    Digital archives, however, often present themselves not simply as new editions participating in long publishing histories of the texts they copy, but as complete, viable alternatives to existing print histories that somehow give direct access to a particular historical–or ahistorical–original. This is absurd, but the pro-digital side doesn’t seem to realize it and the pro-book side doesn’t seem to understand the technology well enough to see through the hype.

    I also think these debates highlight some popular misunderstandings about what books are and how they function as both physical objects and semantic systems.

  6. Bill Tozier

    One of the experiments I’ve been poking around in the last couple of weeks (in preparation for something bigger soon) is re-typesetting digitized works. Rather than simply scanning and OCRing (and of course proofreading and preserving semantically important formatting), I’ve simply left it as a body of editable LaTeX code (and font definitions), so that the original text, and also something of the physical description are present.

    And can be edited. With version control. And forking.

    The github repository is here, and the current PDF here.

  8. P. J. Grath

    You make the point that the digital is also physical. Reading the digital-physical, however, demands an intermediary machine, whereas reading bound printed books does not. For me the distinction between human-readable and only-machine-readable texts is a concern–if you will excuse this very simple-minded point in the midst of so much erudition. (I’m smiling.)

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  10. James Gleick

    I like your piece very much, and the next one, too. I think perhaps I’m being slightly misread. There’s a reason I began my essay the way I did. And, personally, I’m an unashamed fetishizer of books.

    • Sarah Werner

      Thanks for coming by and for your kind words about the posts. I did indeed omit the entire beginning of your op-ed–I hope that people went to it and read it through and saw the subtlety of your argument. I seized on one sentence as lead-in to something that’s been bothering me for a while, and that’s the poverty of how much of the discourse about the possibilities for digitization has gone. But as the rest of my blog shows, I too love books and libraries and the amazingness that is reading something centuries old that has been read by many others. I just don’t understand why for some folks, that love of books that we both have means that we must denigrate digital surrogates. How does one impoverish the other? In any case, thanks for the op-ed that’s prompted these conversations!

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