Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Inevitability and Its Discontent(ed)s

The other day Matthew Bruccoli, who firmly believes in the superiority of book-reading over digital-reading, sent me an interesting pamphlet, The Necessity of Reference Books in the Digital Age, published by The Print Conservancy and made up of three essays: “Research Libraries Without Reference Books” by Matthew J. Bruccoli, “Seduced by Bits and Bytes” by Richard Layman, and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” by Joel Myerson. The points these three scholars make suggest that the coming digital era is a tidal event that will undermine many foundations of scholarship.

What interests me, however, is not what they propose, but that they feel compelled to hold back the waters of change. And they are not the first, of course. Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper mounted a sturdy defense against the destruction of paper records, for example.

Transitions are rarely comfortable, and much is lost in the movement between technologies. However, the current debate is not always “not if, but when”. Instead, thoughtful heads, even among the digi-nabobs at Google, wonder whether printed books will survive the crossing, and no one is sure. Bruccoli, et al focus almost exclusively on reference works. The printed gathering of knowledge—the reference work’s specialty— by a single sensibility—Diderot and D’Alembert, Johnson—may indeed be coming to an end, despite its defenders’ hard work. Indeed, their work was less informational than literary and we live in an era of data. As far back as eighteen months ago, the writer Stacy Schiff compared the Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia and found three errors in the former for four in the latter, not a bad record for a new-fangled approach.

The transition is inevitable, as printed books took the field from hand-written ones, as print took the field from orality. Some have no choice but to rail against the dying of “the light”. Others will slam the door on the past’s less efficient, but perhaps more experiential and immersive approach. Amazon and abebooks can get us any book we want in a matter of days. But when The Celestial Jukebox is in working order and we pay for our pieces of the universal pie of information, the procrusteans will still have a point. However, like their confreres of the late middle ages, no one will remember their names, except if you do a universal gathering on the successor to Google, which we may as well call Yahoosoft.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Thank you Harold for this interesting post. Perhaps the new search engine will be Microyell. Who knows.

I, too, love the traditional printed book but look forward to the electronic ones. I wonder whether our protests circa 2008 will be viewed as quaint in the future. In the 1850s, traditional penman complained that the modern metal dip pens would reduce everyone's handwriting to mechanistic uniformity. Only traditional quills from birds allowed personal variations to be expressed with beauty and originality. What would they have tought of the ballpoint, let alone this typing we do today?

Steve Leveen