[ilds] The Future of Libraries

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Sat Jul 12 12:34:47 PDT 2008

Thank you for the suggestion, Brewster.

I will forward here an electronic copy of Darnton's article. Sharing the 
digital bounty, so to speak.

For my own part, as a teacher, editor, bibliographer, book collector, 
and student of the emerging digital humanities, I am very careful about 
the role I will play as a "translator" between the electronic media and 
the tradition. That is, I am very careful to help my students think more 
precisely about what each different medium brings to the pursuit of 
knowledge, wisdom, and pleasure.

After all, I can lose count quickly if I try to list out all of the 
fortunate book and manuscript finds about which I became aware only 
because electronic databases and online catalogs and auctions allowed me 
access. Contrariwise, I would never have known these books historical 
worth and aesthetic value if I had not been steeped in the aesthetic 
appreciation advocated by Charles Lamb or trained in the quaint old 
twentieth-century Anglo-American school of Bowers, Greg, and Tanselle.

Durrell's attention to book design, book collecting, and libraries is 
worth someone taking up.




Volume 55, Number 10 · June 12, 2008
The Library in the New Age
By Robert Darnton

Information is exploding so furiously around us and information 
technology is changing at such bewildering speed that we face a 
fundamental problem: How to orient ourselves in the new landscape? What, 
for example, will become of research libraries in the face of 
technological marvels such as Google?

How to make sense of it all? I have no answer to that problem, but I can 
suggest an approach to it: look at the history of the ways information 
has been communicated. Simplifying things radically, you could say that 
there have been four fundamental changes in information technology since 
humans learned to speak.

Somewhere, around 4000 BC, humans learned to write. Egyptian hieroglyphs 
go back to about 3200 BC, alphabetical writing to 1000 BC. According to 
scholars like Jack Goody, the invention of writing was the most 
important technological breakthrough in the history of humanity. It 
transformed mankind's relation to the past and opened a way for the 
emergence of the book as a force in history.

The history of books led to a second technological shift when the codex 
replaced the scroll sometime soon after the beginning of the Christian 
era. By the third century AD, the codex—that is, books with pages that 
you turn as opposed to scrolls that you roll—became crucial to the 
spread of Christianity. It transformed the experience of reading: the 
page emerged as a unit of perception, and readers were able to leaf 
through a clearly articulated text, one that eventually included 
differentiated words (that is, words separated by spaces), paragraphs, 
and chapters, along with tables of contents, indexes, and other reader's 
New York Review Books Classics

The codex, in turn, was transformed by the invention of printing with 
movable type in the 1450s. To be sure, the Chinese developed movable 
type around 1045 and the Koreans used metal characters rather than 
wooden blocks around 1230. But Gutenberg's invention, unlike those of 
the Far East, spread like wildfire, bringing the book within the reach 
of ever-widening circles of readers. The technology of printing did not 
change for nearly four centuries, but the reading public grew larger and 
larger, thanks to improvements in literacy, education, and access to the 
printed word. Pamphlets and newspapers, printed by steam-driven presses 
on paper made from wood pulp rather than rags, extended the process of 
democratization so that a mass reading public came into existence during 
the second half of the nineteenth century.

The fourth great change, electronic communication, took place yesterday, 
or the day before, depending on how you measure it. The Internet dates 
from 1974, at least as a term. It developed from ARPANET, which went 
back to 1969, and from earlier experiments in communication among 
networks of computers. The Web began as a means of communication among 
physicists in 1981. Web sites and search engines became common in the 
mid-1990s. And from that point everyone knows the succession of brand 
names that have made electronic communication an everyday experience: 
Web browsers such as Netscape, Internet Explorer, and Safari, and search 
engines such as Yahoo and Google, the latter founded in 1998.

When strung out in this manner, the pace of change seems breathtaking: 
from writing to the codex, 4,300 years; from the codex to movable type, 
1,150 years; from movable type to the Internet, 524 years; from the 
Internet to search engines, nineteen years; from search engines to 
Google's algorithmic relevance ranking, seven years; and who knows what 
is just around the corner or coming out the pipeline?

Each change in the technology has transformed the information landscape, 
and the speed-up has continued at such a rate as to seem both 
unstoppable and incomprehensible. In the long view—what French 
historians call la longue durée—the general picture looks quite 
clear—or, rather, dizzying. But by aligning the facts in this manner, I 
have made them lead to an excessively dramatic conclusion. Historians, 
American as well as French, often play such tricks. By rearranging the 
evidence, it is possible to arrive at a different picture, one that 
emphasizes continuity instead of change. The continuity I have in mind 
has to do with the nature of information itself or, to put it 
differently, the inherent instability of texts. In place of the 
long-term view of technological transformations, which underlies the 
common notion that we have just entered a new era, the information age, 
I want to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its 
own way, and that information has always been unstable.

Let's begin with the Internet and work backward in time. More than a 
million blogs have emerged during the last few years. They have given 
rise to a rich lore of anecdotes about the spread of misinformation, 
some of which sound like urban myths. But I believe the following story 
is true, though I can't vouch for its accuracy, having picked it up from 
the Internet myself. As a spoof, a satirical newspaper, The Onion, put 
it out that an architect had created a new kind of building in 
Washington, D.C., one with a convertible dome. On sunny days, you push a 
button, the dome rolls back, and it looks like a football stadium. On 
rainy days it looks like the Capitol building. The story traveled from 
Web site to Web site until it arrived in China, where it was printed in 
the Beijing Evening News. Then it was taken up by the Los Angeles Times, 
the San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, CNN, Wired.com, and countless 
blogs as a story about the Chinese view of the United States: they think 
we live in convertible buildings, just as we drive around in convertible 

Other stories about blogging point to the same conclusion: blogs create 
news, and news can take the form of a textual reality that trumps the 
reality under our noses. Today many reporters spend more time tracking 
blogs than they do checking out traditional sources such as the 
spokespersons of public authorities. News in the information age has 
broken loose from its conventional moorings, creating possibilities of 
misinformation on a global scale. We live in a time of unprecedented 
accessibility to information that is increasingly unreliable. Or do we?

I would argue that news has always been an artifact and that it never 
corresponded exactly to what actually happened. We take today's front 
page as a mirror of yesterday's events, but it was made up yesterday 
evening—literally, by "make-up" editors, who designed page one according 
to arbitrary conventions: lead story on the far right column, off-lead 
on the left, soft news inside or below the fold, features set off by 
special kinds of headlines. Typographical design orients the reader and 
shapes the meaning of the news. News itself takes the form of narratives 
composed by professionals according to conventions that they picked up 
in the course of their training—the "inverted pyramid" mode of 
exposition, the "color" lead, the code for "high" and "the highest" 
sources, and so on. News is not what happened but a story about what 

Of course, many reporters do their best to be accurate, but they must 
conform to the conventions of their craft, and there is always slippage 
between their choice of words and the nature of an event as experienced 
or perceived by others. Ask anyone involved in a reported happening. 
They will tell you that they did not recognize themselves or the event 
in the story that appeared in the paper. Sophisticated readers in the 
Soviet Union learned to distrust everything that appeared in Pravda and 
even to take nonappearances as a sign of something going on. On August 
31, 1980, when Lech Wal/e?sa signed the agreement with the Polish 
government that created Solidarity as an independent trade union, the 
Polish people refused at first to believe it, not because the news 
failed to reach them but because it was reported on the state-controlled 

I used to be a newspaper reporter myself. I got my basic training as a 
college kid covering police headquarters in Newark in 1959. Although I 
had worked on school newspapers, I did not know what news was—that is, 
what events would make a story and what combination of words would make 
it into print after passing muster with the night city editor. When 
events reached headquarters, they normally took the form of "squeal 
sheets" or typed reports of calls received at the central switchboard. 
Squeal sheets concerned everything from stray dogs to murders, and they 
accumulated at a rate of a dozen every half hour. My job was to collect 
them from a lieutenant on the second floor, go through them for anything 
that might be news, and announce the potential news to the veteran 
reporters from a dozen papers playing poker in the press room on the 
ground floor. The poker game acted as a filter for the news. One of the 
reporters would say if something I selected would be worth checking out. 
I did the checking, usually by phone calls to key offices like the 
homicide squad. If the information was good enough, I would tell the 
poker game, whose members would phone it in to their city desks. But it 
had to be really good—that is, what ordinary people would consider 
bad—to warrant interrupting the never-ending game. Poker was everyone's 
main interest—everyone but me: I could not afford to play (cards cost a 
dollar ante, a lot of money in those days), and I needed to develop a 
nose for news.

I soon learned to disregard DOAs (dead on arrival, meaning ordinary 
deaths) and robberies of gas stations, but it took time for me to spot 
something really "good," like a holdup in a respectable store or a water 
main break at a central location. One day I found a squeal sheet that 
was so good —it combined rape and murder—that I went straight to the 
homicide squad instead of reporting first to the poker game. When I 
showed it to the lieutenant on duty, he looked at me in disgust: "Don't 
you see this, kid?" he said, pointing to a B in parentheses after the 
names of the victim and the suspect. Only then did I notice that every 
name was followed by a B or a W. I did not know that crimes involving 
black people did not qualify as news.

Having learned to write news, I now distrust newspapers as a source of 
information, and I am often surprised by historians who take them as 
primary sources for knowing what really happened. I think newspapers 
should be read for information about how contemporaries construed 
events, rather than for reliable knowledge of events themselves. A study 
of news during the American Revolution by a graduate student of mine, 
Will Slauter, provides an example. Will followed accounts of 
Washington's defeat at the Battle of Brandywine as it was refracted in 
the American and European press. In the eighteenth century, news 
normally took the form of isolated paragraphs rather than "stories" as 
we know them now, and newspapers lifted most of their paragraphs from 
each other, adding new material picked up from gossips in coffeehouses 
or ship captains returning from voyages. A loyalist New York newspaper 
printed the first news of Brandywine with a letter from Washington 
informing Congress that he had been forced to retreat before the British 
forces under General William Howe. A copy of the paper traveled by ship, 
passing from New York to Halifax, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, where the 
paragraph and the letter were reprinted in a local newspaper.

The Edinburgh reprints were then reprinted in several London papers, 
each time undergoing subtle changes. The changes were important, because 
speculators were betting huge sums on the course of the American war, 
while bears were battling bulls on the Stock Exchange, and the 
government was about to present a budget to Parliament, where the 
pro-American opposition was threatening to overthrow the ministry of 
Lord North. At a distance of three thousand miles and four to six weeks 
of travel by ship, events in America were crucial for the resolution of 
this financial and political crisis.

What had actually happened? Londoners had learned to mistrust their 
newspapers, which frequently distorted the news as they lifted 
paragraphs from each other. That the original paragraph came from a 
loyalist American paper made it suspect to the reading public. Its 
roundabout route made it look even more doubtful, for why would 
Washington announce his own defeat, while Howe had not yet claimed 
victory in a dispatch sent directly from Philadelphia, near the scene of 
the action? Moreover, some reports noted that Lafayette had been wounded 
in the battle, an impossibility to British readers, who believed 
(wrongly from earlier, inaccurate reports) that Lafayette was far away 
from Brandywine, fighting against General John Burgoyne near Canada.

Finally, close readings of Washington's letter revealed stylistic 
touches that could not have come from the pen of a general. One—the use 
of "arraying" instead of "arranging" troops— later turned out to be a 
typographical error. Many Londoners therefore concluded that the report 
was a fraud, designed to promote the interests of the bull speculators 
and the Tory politicians—all the more so as the press coverage became 
increasingly inflated through the process of plagiarism. Some London 
papers claimed that the minor defeat had been a major catastrophe for 
the Americans, one that had ended with the annihilation of the rebel 
army and the death of Washington himself. (In fact, he was reported dead 
four times during the coverage of the war, and the London press declared 
Benedict Arnold dead twenty-six times.)

Le Courrier de l'Europe, a French newspaper produced in London, printed 
a translated digest of the English reports with a note warning that they 
probably were false. This version of the event passed through a dozen 
French papers produced in the Low Countries, the Rhineland, Switzerland, 
and France itself. By the time it arrived in Versailles, the news of 
Washington's defeat had been completely discounted. The comte de 
Vergennes, France's foreign minister, therefore continued to favor 
military intervention on the side of the Americans. And in London, when 
Howe's report of his victory finally arrived after a long delay (he had 
unaccountably neglected to write for two weeks), it was eclipsed by the 
more spectacular news of Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga. So the defeat at 
Brandywine turned into a case of miswritten and misread news—a media 
non-event whose meaning was determined by the process of its 
transmission, like the blogging about the convertible dome and the 
filtering of crime reports in Newark's police headquarters.

Information has never been stable. That may be a truism, but it bears 
pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup 
in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which 
information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the 
new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of 
information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form 
of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of 
newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are 
constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of 
firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By 
studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to 
read our daily newspaper more effectively—and even how to appreciate old 

Bibliographers came around to this view long before the Internet. Sir 
Walter Greg developed it at the end of the nineteenth century, and 
Donald McKenzie perfected it at the end of the twentieth century. Their 
work provides an answer to the questions raised by bloggers, Googlers, 
and other enthusiasts of the World Wide Web: Why save more than one copy 
of a book? Why spend large sums to purchase first editions? Aren't rare 
book collections doomed to obsolescence now that everything will be 
available on the Internet?

Unbelievers used to dismiss Henry Clay Folger's determination to 
accumulate copies of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare as the mania 
of a crank. The First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after 
Shakespeare's death, contained the earliest collection of his plays, but 
most collectors assumed that one copy would be enough for any research 
library. When Folger's collection grew beyond three dozen copies, his 
friends scoffed at him as Forty Folio Folger. Since then, however, 
bibliographers have mined that collection for crucial information, not 
only for editing the plays but also for performing them.

They have demonstrated that eighteen of the thirty-six plays in the 
First Folio had never before been printed. Four were known earlier only 
from faulty copies known as "bad" quartos —booklets of individual plays 
printed during Shakespeare's lifetime, often by unscrupulous publishers 
using corrupted versions of the texts. Twelve were reprinted in modified 
form from relatively good quartos; and only two were reprinted without 
change from earlier quarto editions. Since none of Shakespeare's 
manuscripts has survived, differences between these texts can be crucial 
in determining what he wrote. But the First Folio cannot simply be 
compared with the quartos, because every copy of the Folio is different 
from every other copy. While being printed in Isaac Jaggard's shop in 
1622 and 1623, the book went through three very different issues. Some 
copies lacked Troilus and Cressida, some included a complete Troilus, 
and some had the main text of Troilus but without its prologue and with 
a crossed-out ending to Romeo and Juliet on the reverse side of the leaf 
containing Troilus's first scene.

The differences were compounded by at least one hundred stop-press 
corrections and by the peculiar practices of at least nine compositors 
who set the copy while also working on other jobs—and occasionally 
abandoning Shakespeare to an incompetent teenage apprentice. By arguing 
from the variations in the texts, bibliographers like Charlton Hinman 
and Peter Blayney have reconstructed the production process and thus 
arrived at convincing conclusions about the most important works in the 
English language. This painstaking scholarship could not have been done 
without Mr. Folger's Folios.

Of course, Shakespeare is a special case. But textual stability never 
existed in the pre-Internet eras. The most widely diffused edition of 
Diderot's Encyclopédie in eighteenth-century France contained hundreds 
of pages that did not exist in the original edition. Its editor was a 
clergyman who padded the text with excerpts from a sermon by his bishop 
in order to win the bishop's patronage. Voltaire considered the 
Encyclopédie so imperfect that he designed his last great work, 
Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, as a nine-volume sequel to it. In order to 
spice up his text and to increase its diffusion, he collaborated with 
pirates behind the back of his own publisher, adding passages to the 
pirated editions.

In fact, Voltaire toyed with his texts so much that booksellers 
complained. As soon as they sold one edition of a work, another would 
appear, featuring additions and corrections by the author. Their 
customers protested. Some even said that they would not buy an edition 
of Voltaire's complete works —and there were many, each different from 
the others—until he died, an event eagerly anticipated by retailers 
throughout the book trade.

Piracy was so pervasive in early modern Europe that best-sellers could 
not be blockbusters as they are today. Instead of being produced in huge 
numbers by one publisher, they were printed simultaneously in many small 
editions by many publishers, each racing to make the most of a market 
unconstrained by copyright. Few pirates attempted to produce accurate 
counterfeits of the original editions. They abridged, expanded, and 
reworked texts as they pleased, without worrying about the authors' 
intentions. They behaved as deconstructionists avant la lettre.

The issue of textual stability leads to the general question about the 
role of research libraries in the age of the Internet. I cannot pretend 
to offer easy answers, but I would like to put the question in 
perspective by discussing two views of the library, which I would 
describe as grand illusions—grand and partly true.

To students in the 1950s, libraries looked like citadels of learning. 
Knowledge came packaged between hard covers, and a great library seemed 
to contain all of it. To climb the steps of the New York Public Library, 
past the stone lions guarding its entrance and into the monumental 
reading room on the third floor, was to enter a world that included 
everything known. The knowledge came ordered into standard categories 
which could be pursued through a card catalog and into the pages of the 
books. In colleges everywhere the library stood at the center of the 
campus. It was the most important building, a temple set off by 
classical columns, where one read in silence: no noise, no food, no 
disturbances beyond a furtive glance at a potential date bent over a 
book in quiet contemplation.

Students today still respect their libraries, but reading rooms are 
nearly empty on some campuses. In order to entice the students back, 
some librarians offer them armchairs for lounging and chatting, even 
drinks and snacks, never mind about the crumbs. Modern or postmodern 
students do most of their research at computers in their rooms. To them, 
knowledge comes online, not in libraries. They know that libraries could 
never contain it all within their walls, because information is endless, 
extending everywhere on the Internet, and to find it one needs a search 
engine, not a card catalog. But this, too, may be a grand illusion—or, 
to put it positively, there is something to be said for both visions, 
the library as a citadel and the Internet as open space. We have come to 
the problems posed by Google Book Search.

In 2006 Google signed agreements with five great research libraries—the 
New York Public, Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, and Oxford's Bodleian—to 
digitize their books. Books in copyright posed a problem, which soon was 
compounded by lawsuits from publishers and authors. But putting that 
aside, the Google proposal seemed to offer a way to make all book 
learning available to all people, or at least those privileged enough to 
have access to the World Wide Web. It promised to be the ultimate stage 
in the democratization of knowledge set in motion by the invention of 
writing, the codex, movable type, and the Internet.

Now, I speak as a Google enthusiast. I believe Google Book Search really 
will make book learning accessible on a new, worldwide scale, despite 
the great digital divide that separates the poor from the computerized. 
It also will open up possibilities for research involving vast 
quantities of data, which could never be mastered without digitization. 
As an example of what the future holds, I would cite the Electronic 
Enlightenment, a project sponsored by the Voltaire Foundation of Oxford. 
By digitizing the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and 
Jefferson—about two hundred volumes in superb, scholarly editions —it 
will, in effect, recreate the transatlantic republic of letters from the 
eighteenth century.

The letters of many other philosophers, from Locke and Bayle to Bentham 
and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, will be integrated into this database, so 
that scholars will be able to trace references to individuals, books, 
and ideas throughout the entire network of correspondence that 
undergirded the Enlightenment. Many other such projects—notably American 
Memory sponsored by the Library of Congress[1] and the Valley of the 
Shadow created at the University of Virginia[2] —have demonstrated the 
feasibility and usefulness of databases on this scale. But their success 
does not prove that Google Book Search, the largest undertaking of them 
all, will make research libraries obsolete. On the contrary, Google will 
make them more important than ever. To support this view, I would like 
to organize my argument around eight points.

1. According to the most utopian claim of the Googlers, Google can put 
virtually all printed books on-line. That claim is misleading, and it 
raises the danger of creating false consciousness, because it may lull 
us into neglecting our libraries. What percentage of the books in the 
United States —never mind the rest of the world— will be digitized by 
Google: 75 percent? 50 percent? 25 percent? Even if the figure is 90 
percent, the residual, nondigitized books could be important. I recently 
discovered an extraordinary libertine novel, Les Bohémiens, by an 
unknown author, the marquis de Pelleport, who wrote it in the Bastille 
at the same time that the marquis de Sade was writing his novels in a 
nearby cell. I think that Pelleport's book, published in 1790, is far 
better than anything Sade produced; and whatever its aesthetic merits, 
it reveals a great deal about the condition of writers in 
pre-Revolutionary France. Yet only six copies of it exist, as far as I 
can tell, none of them available on the Internet.[3] (The Library of 
Congress, which has a copy, has not opened its holdings to Google.)

If Google missed this book, and other books like it, the researcher who 
relied on Google would never be able to locate certain works of great 
importance. The criteria of importance change from generation to 
generation, so we cannot know what will matter to our descendants. They 
may learn a lot from studying our Harlequin novels or computer manuals 
or telephone books. Literary scholars and historians today depend 
heavily on research in almanacs, chapbooks, and other kinds of "popular" 
literature, yet few of those works from the seventeenth and eighteenth 
centuries have survived. They were printed on cheap paper, sold in 
flimsy covers, read to pieces, and ignored by collectors and librarians 
who did not consider them "literature." A researcher in Trinity College, 
Dublin recently discovered a drawer full of forgotten ballad books, each 
one the only copy in existence, each priceless in the eyes of the modern 
scholar, though it had seemed worthless two centuries ago.

2. Although Google pursued an intelligent strategy by signing up five 
great libraries, their combined holdings will not come close to 
exhausting the stock of books in the United States. Contrary to what one 
might expect, there is little redundancy in the holdings of the five 
libraries: 60 percent of the books being digitized by Google exist in 
only one of them. There are about 543 million volumes in the research 
libraries of the United States. Google reportedly set its initial goal 
of digitizing at 15 million. As Google signs up more libraries—at last 
count, twenty-eight are participating in Google Book Search—the 
representativeness of its digitized database will improve. But it has 
not yet ventured into special collections, where the rarest works are to 
be found. And of course the totality of world literature—all the books 
in all the languages of the world—lies far beyond Google's capacity to 

3. Although it is to be hoped that the publishers, authors, and Google 
will settle their dispute, it is difficult to see how copyright will 
cease to pose a problem. According to the copyright law of 1976 and the 
copyright extension law of 1998, most books published after 1923 are 
currently covered by copyright, and copyright now extends to the life of 
the author plus seventy years. For books in the public domain, Google 
probably will allow readers to view the full text and print every page. 
For books under copyright, however, Google will probably display only a 
few lines at a time, which it claims is legal under fair use.

Google may persuade the publishers and authors to surrender their claims 
to books published between 1923 and the recent past, but will it get 
them to modify their copyrights in the present and future? In 2006, 
291,920 new titles were published in the United States, and the number 
of new books in print has increased nearly every year for the last 
decade, despite the spread of electronic publishing. How can Google keep 
up with current production while at the same time digitizing all the 
books accumulated over the centuries? Better to increase the 
acquisitions of our research libraries than to trust Google to preserve 
future books for the benefit of future generations. Google defines its 
mission as the communication of information—right now, today; it does 
not commit itself to conserving texts indefinitely.

4. Companies decline rapidly in the fast-changing environment of 
electronic technology. Google may disappear or be eclipsed by an even 
greater technology, which could make its database as outdated and 
inaccessible as many of our old floppy disks and CD-ROMs. Electronic 
enterprises come and go. Research libraries last for centuries. Better 
to fortify them than to declare them obsolete, because obsolescence is 
built into the electronic media.

5. Google will make mistakes. Despite its concern for quality and 
quality control, it will miss books, skip pages, blur images, and fail 
in many ways to reproduce texts perfectly. Once we believed that 
microfilm would solve the problem of preserving texts. Now we know better.

6. As in the case of microfilm, there is no guarantee that Google's 
copies will last. Bits become degraded over time. Documents may get lost 
in cyberspace, owing to the obsolescence of the medium in which they are 
encoded. Hardware and software become extinct at a distressing rate. 
Unless the vexatious problem of digital preservation is solved, all 
texts "born digital" belong to an endangered species. The obsession with 
developing new media has inhibited efforts to preserve the old. We have 
lost 80 percent of all silent films and 50 percent of all films made 
before World War II. Nothing preserves texts better than ink imbedded in 
paper, especially paper manufactured before the nineteenth century, 
except texts written on parchment or engraved in stone. The best 
preservation system ever invented was the old-fashioned, pre-modern book.

7. Google plans to digitize many versions of each book, taking whatever 
it gets as the copies appear, assembly-line fashion, from the shelves; 
but will it make all of them available? If so, which one will it put at 
the top of its search list? Ordinary readers could get lost while 
searching among thousands of different editions of Shakespeare's plays, 
so they will depend on the editions that Google makes most easily 
accessible. Will Google determine its relevance ranking of books in the 
same way that it ranks references to everything else, from toothpaste to 
movie stars? It now has a secret algorithm to rank Web pages according 
to the frequency of use among the pages linked to them, and presumably 
it will come up with some such algorithm in order to rank the demand for 
books. But nothing suggests that it will take account of the standards 
prescribed by bibliographers, such as the first edition to appear in 
print or the edition that corresponds most closely to the expressed 
intention of the author.

Google employs hundreds, perhaps thousands, of engineers but, as far as 
I know, not a single bibliographer. Its innocence of any visible concern 
for bibliography is particularly regrettable in that most texts, as I 
have just argued, were unstable throughout most of the history of 
printing. No single copy of an eighteenth-century best-seller will do 
justice to the endless variety of editions. Serious scholars will have 
to study and compare many editions, in the original versions, not in the 
digitized reproductions that Google will sort out according to criteria 
that probably will have nothing to do with bibliographical scholarship.

8. Even if the digitized image on the computer screen is accurate, it 
will fail to capture crucial aspects of a book. For example, size. The 
experience of reading a small duodecimo, designed to be held easily in 
one hand, differs considerably from that of reading a heavy folio 
propped up on a book stand. It is important to get the feel of a 
book—the texture of its paper, the quality of its printing, the nature 
of its binding. Its physical aspects provide clues about its existence 
as an element in a social and economic system; and if it contains margin 
notes, it can reveal a great deal about its place in the intellectual 
life of its readers.

Books also give off special smells. According to a recent survey of 
French students, 43 percent consider smell to be one of the most 
important qualities of printed books—so important that they resist 
buying odorless electronic books. CaféScribe, a French on-line 
publisher, is trying to counteract that reaction by giving its customers 
a sticker that will give off a fusty, bookish smell when it is attached 
to their computers.

When I read an old book, I hold its pages up to the light and often find 
among the fibers of the paper little circles made by drops from the hand 
of the vatman as he made the sheet—or bits of shirts and petticoats that 
failed to be ground up adequately during the preparation of the pulp. I 
once found a fingerprint of a pressman enclosed in the binding of an 
eighteenth-century Encyclopédie—testimony to tricks in the trade of 
printers, who sometimes spread too much ink on the type in order to make 
it easier to get an impression by pulling the bar of the press.

I realize, however, that considerations of "feel" and "smell" may seem 
to undercut my argument. Most readers care about the text, not the 
physical medium in which it is embedded; and by indulging my fascination 
with print and paper, I may expose myself to accusations of 
romanticizing or of reacting like an old-fashioned, ultra-bookish 
scholar who wants nothing more than to retreat into a rare book room. I 
plead guilty. I love rare book rooms, even the kind that make you put on 
gloves before handling their treasures. Rare book rooms are a vital part 
of research libraries, the part that is most inaccessible to Google. But 
libraries also provide places for ordinary readers to immerse themselves 
in books, quiet places in comfortable settings, where the codex can be 
appreciated in all its individuality.

In fact, the strongest argument for the old-fashioned book is its 
effectiveness for ordinary readers. Thanks to Google, scholars are able 
to search, navigate, harvest, mine, deep link, and crawl (the terms vary 
along with the technology) through millions of Web sites and electronic 
texts. At the same time, anyone in search of a good read can pick up a 
printed volume and thumb through it at ease, enjoying the magic of words 
as ink on paper. No computer screen gives satisfaction like the printed 
page. But the Internet delivers data that can be transformed into a 
classical codex. It already has made print-on-demand a thriving 
industry, and it promises to make books available from computers that 
will operate like ATM machines: log in, order electronically, and out 
comes a printed and bound volume. Perhaps someday a text on a hand-held 
screen will please the eye as thoroughly as a page of a codex produced 
two thousand years ago.

Meanwhile, I say: shore up the library. Stock it with printed matter. 
Reinforce its reading rooms. But don't think of it as a warehouse or a 
museum. While dispensing books, most research libraries operate as nerve 
centers for transmitting electronic impulses. They acquire data sets, 
maintain digital repositories, provide access to e-journals, and 
orchestrate information systems that reach deep into laboratories as 
well as studies. Many of them are sharing their intellectual wealth with 
the rest of the world by permitting Google to digitize their printed 
collections. Therefore, I also say: long live Google, but don't count on 
it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the 
Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for 
adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand 
at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy 
for the future.


[1] It is, according to the site, "a digital record of American history 
and creativity," including sound recordings, prints, maps, and many 
other images.

[2] An archive of letters, diaries, official records, periodicals, and 
images documenting the life of two communities— one Northern, one 
Southern—two hundred miles apart in the Shenandoah Valley during the 
years 1859–1870.

[3] See my article on Les Bohémiens in these pages, "Finding a Lost 
Prince of Bohemia," The New York Review, April 3, 2008.

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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