Libraries, digital libraries and the printed word

By reeset / On / In Digital Libraries

On Sunday, before coming back to Oregon, I ended up spending some time at Monticello relaxing in the garden doing some reflecting on my trip and I started to think about the printed book and where it fits into the digital library of the future.  Its actually funny, because a number of articles recently have been written over the past month regarding the future of the printed word.  One representative text was published by the New York times in mid-May by Kevin Kelly.  The article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/magazine/14publishing.html.  You’ll have to register with the NY times to see the article or you can find it in Lexis Nexis.  However, the general gist of the article was the printed word’s days are numbered and its medium as a static one are outdated.  The article itself wasn’t so interesting (outside of being a representative article from the general public) — but what was interesting was the response.  A couple of weeks later, John Updike delivered a speech to book publishers giving a response to the the Kelly article.  John Updike’s response can be found at: http://bookexpocast.com/?p=12

I think that it was because of these two recent articles/talks that I was struck by something Thomas Jefferson wrote shortly after selling his library to the U.S. Congress sometime in 1814.  After selling all his books, Jefferson wrote to John Adams in a letter that “I cannot live without books” and begun the task of recollecting his favorite works of poetry, literature and science.  Its a quote that says a lot about the importance that Jefferson placed on education (it should be noted that it was his founding of the University of Virginia, not his presidency or service in government, that Jefferson was most proud of.  His epitaph, which he wrote, mentions the three works that he was most proud of — being the author of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Virginia articles of Religious freedom and the founding of the UVA).  In thinking about this quote while walking through the garden, I started thinking about digital libraries within this context.  What would someone like Jefferson think about the current state of digital library development or our publishers gradual move from print to electronic formats.  Personally, I think that his response would be two fold.  On the one hand, digital copies make items available and often times accessible to a larger audience.  One only needs to look at the work being done by museums working with k-12 education to expose high schoolers to primary materials.  I think that Jefferson would have found this heartening — as this type of access can have the intended affect of breaking down traditional barriers to access.  On the other hand, I think that there would be a hint of aprehension and sadness, as can be found in John Updike’s response to Kelly’s article.  There is a comfort that can be found in the tactile book — something that connects the reader to work in a way that simply has yet to be captured within a digital environment.  Would this be a work’s “heart”?  I don’t know.  But its an interesting idea to consider.  Personally, I have a difficult time envisioning a world without the printed word.  They say that when Jefferson sold his library to the Congress that he had some 6,500 volumes.  Like many in the library world — I’m pretty competitive with that number within my own home library.  And while many of these books I could see (and do use) using exclusively as digital copies — particularly the technical books that lend themselves well to the interwoven nature of the web, there are many books, books that I read just for the fun of it — like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Marlowe’s Faust that I simply could never imagine reading without my books.  I enjoy jotting down notes, folding the pages and allowing myself to be drawn into the pages as my imagination transports me down the river to meet with Kutz.  In these times — the book is part of the experience. 

Anyway — I this is a little off my normal topic, but I thought I’d throw it out there and see if anyone else has an opinion.  Particularly because libraries are currently faced with these decisions today.  When digitizing a text — do you digitize and withdrawn the print copy (many do) — or when purchasing electronic journals — do you purchase electronic and cancel the print.  What does this mean for long term preservation — not only for the library and it’s immediate patrons, but also for society in general — where the library has traditionally served the societal role as information repositor.  Interesting questions — and ones that I obviously have few answers for.

–TR