Google Books and Real Books

The main conclusion of this excellent New Yorker essay (“Future Reading” by Anthony Grafton) is that while the huge digitization projects will bring millions of items to anyone with an internet connection, if you want fuller knowledge, you will never be able to get it just from a computer screen. If you’ve spent any amount of time with original materials, you know how true this is. It was an amazing experience for me to browse through John Milton’s own Bible, Evelyn Waugh’s manuscript copy of Brideshead Revisited, an original printing of Shakespeare’s First Folio, and any of the scores of other items I’ve had the privilege to hold and read, dating from the 10th through the 21st centuries.

That said, you’ll have to shoot me before I stop using the digital resources. They too are now indispensible.

Here’s a good quotation, but do read the essay yourself. It’s got too many interesting nuggets in it to do it justice in a blog post.

Original documents reward us for taking the trouble to find them by telling us things that no image can. Duguid describes watching a fellow-historian systematically sniff two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks. Historians of the book—a new and growing tribe—read books as scouts read trails. [. . .]

For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously. No one should avoid the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen. But if you want to know what one of Coleridge’s annotated books or an early “Spider-Man” comic really looks and feels like, or if you just want to read one of those millions of books which are being digitized, you still have to do it the old way, and you will have to for decades to come. At the New York Public Library, the staff loves electronic media. The library has made hundreds of thousands of images from its collections accessible on the Web, but it has done so in the knowledge that its collection comprises fifty-three million items.


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