Category Archives: libraries

Digitization and the fulfillment of the book

My colleague in the library here at Messiah College, Jonathan Lauer, has a very nice essay in the most recent Digital Campus edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Jonathan makes an eloquent defense of the traditional book over and against the googlization and ebookification of everything.   He especially employs an extended metaphor drawn from the transition to aluminum bats in various levels of baseball to discuss his unease and reservations about the shifts to electronic books and away from print that is profoundly and rapidly changing the nature of libraries as we’ve known them.  The essay is more evocative than argumentative, so there’s a lot of different things going on, but a couple of Jonathan’s main points are that enhancements we supposedly achieve with digitization projects come at a cost to our understanding of texts and at a cost to ourselves.

In the big leagues, wooden bats still matter. Keeping print materials on campus and accessible remains important for other reasons as well. Witness Andrew M. Stauffer’s recent Chroniclearticle, “The Troubled Future of the 19th-Century Book.” Stauffer, the director of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, cites several examples of what we all know intuitively. “The books on the shelves carry plenty of information lost in the process of digitization, no matter how lovingly a particular copy is rendered on the screen,” he writes. “There are vitally significant variations in the stacks: editions, printings, issues, bindings, illustrations, paper type, size, marginalia, advertisements, and other customizations in apparently identical copies.” Without these details, discernible only in physical copies, we are unable to understand a book’s total impact. Are we so easily seduced by the aluminum bat that we toss all wooden ones from the bat bag?

Let’s also acknowledge that our gadgets eventually program us. History teaches us that technologies often numb the very human capacities they amplify; in its most advanced forms, this is tantamount to auto-amputation. As weavers lost manual dexterity with their use of increasingly mechanized looms during the Industrial Revolution, so we can only imagine what effect GPS will have on the innate and learned ability of New York City cabbies to find their way around the five boroughs. Yet we practice auto-amputation at our own peril. We dare not abandon wooden bats for aluminum for those endeavors that demand prolonged attention, reflection, and the analysis and synthesis that sometimes lead to wisdom, the best result of those decidedly human endeavors that no gadget can exercise.

I have a lot of sympathy for Jonathan’s position, things like the revamping of the New York Public Library leaving me with a queasy hole in my stomach.  I’ve had a running conversation with Beth Transue, another of our librarians, about our desire to start leading alumni tours of the world’s great libraries, but if we’re going to do so we better get it done fast because most of them won’t be around anymore in a few more years, at least if the NYPL and its budgetary woes are anything to judge by.

At the same time, I think Jonathan overstates his case here.  I don’t think serious thinkers are assuming we’ll get rid of books entirely.  Although I currently think we are already living in what I’ve called an E-plus world, print will continue to be with us serving many different purposes. Jason Epstein over at the NYRB has a blog on this fact and progrognosticating the likely future and uses of the traditional book seems to be a growth industry at the moment. I don’t think the average student is too terribly interested in the material textuality that Jonathan references above, nor for that matter is the average scholar, the vast majority of whom remain interested in what people wrote not how the publishers chose to package it.  But those issues will continue to be extremely important for cultural and social historians, and there will be some forms of work that will only possibly be done with books.  Just as it is a tremendous boon to have Joyce’s manuscript’s digitized, making them available for the general reader and the scholar who cannot afford a trip to Ireland, authoritative interpretations of Joyce’s method, biography, and life’s work will still have to make the trip to Ireland to see the thing for themselves, to capture what can’t be captured by a high resolution camera.

That having been said, who would say that students studying Joyce should avoid examining the digitized manuscripts closely because they aren’t “the genuine article.”  Indeed, I strongly suspect that even the authoritative interpretations of those manuscripts will increasingly be a commerce between examination of the physical object and close examination of digitized objects since advanced DH work shows us time and time again that computerized forms of analysis can get at things the naked eye could never see.  So the fact that there are badly digitized copies of things in google books and beyond, shouldn’t belie the fact that there are some massively important scholarly opportunities here.

Jonathan’s second point is about the deeply human and quasi-spiritual aspects of engagement with traditional books that so many of us have felt over the years.  There’s something very true about this. It is also true that our technologies can result in forms of self amputation.  Indeed, if we are to take it to heart we need to admit that the technology of writing and reading itself is something that involves self-amputation.  Studies have shown that heavy readers alter their brains, and not always in a good sense.  We diminish the capacity of certain forms of memory, literally making ourselves absent minded professors.   Other studies have suggested that persons in oral cultures have this capacity in heightened form, and  some people argue that this generation is far more visually acute than those that preceded it, developing new abilities because of their engagement with visual texts.  So, indeed, our technologies alter us, and even result in self-amputation, but that is true of the traditional book as well as the internet.  This second is Jonathan’s larger claim since it seems to claim for traditional books as such a superiority in terms of something central to humanity as such. I am intrigued, with this argument that the book is superior for serious reflection and the quasi spiritual aspects of study that we have come to treat as central to the humanities.

I admit, I don’t buy it.

First, I admit that I’m just wary about attributing essential human superiorities to historical artifact and practices.  Homer as a collection of aural songs is not inherently inferior to the scrolls within which they were originally collected, then finding their apotheosis in the book form.  We have come to think of the book as exhibiting and symbolizing superior forms of humanity, but it’s not clear that book form was triumphant in the west because of these attributes.  Indeed, traditional Jews and others clearly think the scroll remains the superior spiritual form even to this day.  Rather, the codex triumphed for a variety of complicated reasons.  Partly Christian Churches for ideological reasons apparently wanted to distinguish their own writings from the writings of the Jews.  There may have been some more substantive reasons as well, though that’s not entirely clear: Anthony Grafton points out that many of the Christian innovations with the codex seemed to focus on the desire to compare different kinds of texts side by side (an innovation, I will point out, for which the internet is in many ways easily superior).  The codex also triumphed not because it was spiritually and intellectually superior but because it was, frankly, more efficient, cheaper, and easier to disseminate than its scrolly ancestors.  One good example is from the poet Martial who explicitly ties the selling of his poetry in codex form to making them easily and efficiently accessible to the common person:  “Assign your book-boxes to the great, this copy of me one hand can grasp.”

The entire trend of book history has been toward this effort to make texts and what they contain more readily and easily available to more and more people.  From the early clay tablets to the mass market paperback that let you carry Plato in your hip pocket, the thrust of the book has been toward broader and broader dissemination, toward greater and greater ease of use, toward cheaper and cheaper accessibility.  The goal of writing, even when that writing was imprisoned in libraries that only the initiated could enter as in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, has been open access.

The digitization that is occurring now comes to fulfill the book, not destroy it.

Secondarily, I guess I no longer believe fully in the spiritual or intellectual superiority of codex forms simply since it doesn’t comport with my experience.  As I do more and more of my reading of books with my various e-readers, I find that I have serious, contemplative, analytical, and synthetic engagements with all kinds of texts, from those hundreds of “pages” long and those not.  As I get used to the tools of various e-readers, theres almost nothing that can’t be accomplished in some way on an e-reader that is accomplished in traditional books.  Although I interact with texts differently now in a spatial sense, I am able to take fuller and more copious notes, I am able to mark texts more easily,  and if I can’t quite remember where something was in the book I can use a search engine to find not only a specific phrase or topic, but every single instance of that topic in the book.  Moreover, because every text represents an act of contemplation on and conversation with other texts, I can at the touch of a screen go and read for myself the interlocutors embedded within a book, just as those interested in Jonathan’s essay can touch my link above and decide for themselves whether I am reading him fairly.  Thus there are very obviously and seriously some ways in which e-readers are superior for serious analytical and interpretive readings of texts, or at least the equal to them.

All this having been said, I will say that there remains one way that I find the traditional paper book the clear superior to the e-book, and that has to do with my ability to make it mine.

I spoke a couple of days ago about the personal connection I felt to Kierkegaard in rereading him and discovering my many years of underlines, highlights and marginalia.  I even confess that I real Kimi Cunningham Grant’s new memoir on my iPad, but I still bought a hard cover at the reading–not because I thought I would be able to analyze it more effectively in hard cover, but because I wanted her to sign it for me.

This is a personal connection to the book that isn’t unimportant, but that is about my personal biography, and Kimi’s.  It’s not about the text, and frankly I doubt it will in the long run even be about literary history.  Some literary archivist somewhere is collecting all the shared comments on the Kindle version of Kimi’s book, and that massive marginalia will be fodder for some graduate student’s dissertation in a few decades.

I pity the poor graduate student who decides on such a project. But at least she won’t have to strain her eyes to decipher the handwriting.

How Do Blogging and Traditional Modes of Scholarly Production Relate?

In the latest edition of the Chronicle’s Digital Campus, Martin Weller makes some strong claims about the significance of blogging.  Recognizing the difficulty of measuring the value of a blog in comparison to traditional modes of journalistic publication, Weller believes that blogging is ultimately in the interest of both institutions and scholarship.

It’s a difficult problem, but one that many institutions are beginning to come to terms with. Combining the rich data available online that can reveal a scholar’s impact with forms of peer assessment gives an indication of reputation. Universities know this is a game they need to play—that having a good online reputation is more important in recruiting students than a glossy prospectus. And groups that sponsor research are after good online impact as well as presentations at conferences and journal papers.

Institutional reputation is largely created through the faculty’s online identity, and many institutions are now making it a priority to develop, recognize, and encourage practices such as blogging.For institutions and individuals alike, these practices are moving from specialist hobby to the mainstream. This is not without its risks, but as James Boyle, author of the book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008), argues, we tend to overstate the dangers of open approaches and overlook the benefits, while the converse holds true for the closed system.

The Virtues of Blogging as Scholarly Activity – The Digital Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The claim that an Institutional reputation is largely created through the faculty’s online identity startled me when I first read it, an index no doubt of my deeply held and inveterate prejudice in favor of libraries.  But I have been trying to pound away with the faculty how utterly important our online presence is, and the internet–in many different modes–gives us the opportunity to create windows on humanities work that are not otherwise easily achieved–at least in comparison to some of the work done by our colleagues in the arts or in the sciences.  Blogging is one way of creating connection, of creating vision, and I think that with a very few exceptions like the ivies and the public ivies, it is very much the case that your online presence matters more than any other thing you can possibly do to establish your reputation in the public eye and in the eye of prospective students and their parents.

That is fairly easy to grasp.  The value of the blogging to scholarship in general, or its relationship to traditional scholarship remains more thorny and difficult to parse.  I’ve had conversations with my colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, and we both agree that in some sense scholars still have to have established some claim to speak through traditional modes of publication in order to give their scholarly blogging some sense of authority.  People listen to John about History because he’s published books and articles. [Why people listen to me I have no idea–although I do have books and articles I have nothing like John’s reputation;  it may have something to do with simply holding a position.  Because I am a dean at a college I can lay claim to certain kinds of experience that are relevant to discussing the humanities].

I am not sure it will always be thus.  I think the day is fast approaching when publishing books will become less and less important as the arbiter of scholarly authority.  But I think for now and perhaps for a very good long time to come, blogging exist in an interesting symbiosis with other traditional forms of scholarship. Weller quotes John Naughton to this effect:  “Looking back on the history,” he writes, “one clear trend stands out: Each new technology increased the complexity of the ecosystem.”

I’ve read some things lately that say blogging may be on its way out, replaced in the minds of the general public, I guess, by Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.  But for now I think it remains an interesting and somewhat hybrid academic form.  A forum for serious thought and reasonably good writing, but not one that claims to be writing for the ages.  In some respects, I think the best blogging is more like the recovery of the eighteenth century Salon, wherein wit that demonstrated learning and acumen was highly valued, and perhaps a basis of academic life that stood unembarrassed next to the more muscular form of the book. Blogging is one clearly important addition to the scholarly ecosystem, playing off of and extending traditional scholarship rather than simply replacing it.

In my own life right now, as an administrator, I have too little time during the school year to pursue the writing of a 40 page article or a 400 page book–nor, right now, do I have the interest or inclination (however much I want to get back and finish the dang Harlem Renaissance manuscript that sits moldering in my computer).  I do, however, continue to feel the need to contribute to scholarly conversation surrounding the humanities and higher education in general.  Blogging is one good way to do that, and one that, like Weller, I find enjoyable, creative, and stress relieving–even when I am writing my blog at 11:00 at night to make sure I can get something posted.  Ever the Protestant and his work ethic.

Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

I know right now that I am partly subject to the enthusiasm of the new convert in seeing my object of adoration everywhere I turn, but truly, it seems that everywhere I turn these days I see the landslide toward a total digitalization of the world of the humanities.  Like a landslide, it may have looked a long ways off at first, but its upon us now, and rumble has become a roar.   As I said in this previous post, I think we’re a long way past a print plus world and we better figure out how digital tools, either simple things like e-books or complex tools and methodologies associated with digitalization, are going to change what we are doing with ourselves and our students.  A few rumblings:

1. Robert Darnton announces that the Digital Public Library of America will be up and running by 2013.  Darnton, an advocate of public digitalization efforts that will prevent private entities like Google from controlling access to information, has spearheaded the effort to bring together the digitalization efforts of libraries around the globe.  According to the DPLA’s website, the purpose of the the DPLA is focused in the following ways:

Many universities, public libraries, and other public-spirited organizations have digitized materials that could be brought together under the frame of the DPLA, but these digital collections often exist in silos. Compounding this problem are disparate technical standards, disorganized and incomplete metadata, and a host of legal issues. No project has yet succeeded in bringing these different viewpoints, experiences, and collections together with leading technical experts and the best of private industry to find solutions to these complex challenges. Users have neither coherent access to these materials nor tools to use them in new and exciting ways, and institutions have no clear blueprint for creating a shared infrastructure to serve the public good. The time is right to launch an ambitious project to realize the great promise of the Internet for the advancement of sharing information and of using technology to enable new knowledge and discoveries in the United States.

2. Appearance of the Journal of Digital Humanities:  I already mentioned this yesterday, but I’ll go ahead and do it again.  It seems to me that Digital Humanities is coalescing in to a force in academe–rather than a marginalized crew on the ragtag end–not unlike the massive changes that occurred in humanistic studies after 1966 and the advent of deconstruction and its step-children.  In my estimation the change may be even more massive–and perhaps more painful and more exciting–than those earlier changes since deconstruction did not essentially change the tools of the trade–we still read books (and gradually included film, pop-culture, and other media) and we still wrote papers about them.  While deconstruction may have been a more sophisticated and nifty looking hammer, it was still basically a hammer.  Digital Humanities is changing humanistic work at the level of the tool, creating houses without hammers.

3.People Who read e-books read more books than those who do not--A new Pew Research Center study suggests the following:

a survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that e-book consumers in the U.S. are reading over a third more books than their print-only customers. According to the report, titled “The Rise of E-Reading,” the average reader of e-books says he or she has read 24 books in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by non–e-book consumers.

Overall, Pew found that the number of American adults who say they have read an e-book rose to 21%, compared to 17% reported just a few months ago in December 2011. That jump comes following a holiday season that saw a spike in the ownership of both tablet computers and dedicated e-readers.

I admit that I want to cavil a bit about this news.  It’s also been demonstrated that e-readers so far are overwhelmingly dominated by pulp fiction romances and mysteries, the kind of thing you can read easily in a day.  On the other hand, book selling and reading in general has ALWAYS been dominated by the romance and mystery genres, so that’s nothing new.

The same Publishers Weekly article points to a study saying that e-readers are poised to take off with a massive global spike.  We’ve heard this before, but….Well, I asked my boss the other day if I could purchase a Kindle so I could experiment with the Kindle library program.  I am over the edge and into the dark side of the abyss.

4. The New York Public Library opened up an amazing new database tool for the 19040 census–itself an amazing database just released by the U.S. government.  I haven’t totally figured out how to use it yet, but your can search for persons in the census, tag their location in GIS based maps of New York City and do multilayered searching of NYC based on the crowd-sourced effort at developing a digital social history of New York City.  According to this article in the Gothamist,

Kate Stober at the NYPL tells us it’s “more than just a research tool, we’ll be helping New Yorkers create a social history map of buildings and neighborhoods in the five boroughs. When you find an address, the tool pins it to both a 1940 map and a contemporary map, so you can see how the area has changed. You’re then invited to leave a note attached to the pin—memories, info about who lived there, what the neighborhood was like, questions… As people use the site, we’ll build a cultural map of New York in 1940 that will assist both professional historians and laypeople alike.” And that’s pretty amazing.

I’m especially fond of this article because it goes on to point out that famous recluse, J.D. Salinger was indeed living in plain site on Park Avenue in New York City in 1940.  You just had to know his first name was Jerome and have faith that there couldn’t be more than one Jerome D. Salinger’s in Manhattan.  I think the question for humanist scholars will be what responsible teacher of the culture, art, history, and politics, etcetera of America in the 1940s would not want to use this tool and insist that their students use it to.

It’s more than a rumble.