Future reading : digitization and its discontents / Anthony Grafton
New Yorker, Nov. 5/07
This article puts the Google Book Search and Google Library Project digitization efforts in a historical context, pointing out that efforts to “accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently” are nothing new. From Mesopotamian scribes’ clay tablets to Erasmus’s “Adages” to Fremont Rider’s microphotography, the history around the organization of written information has deep roots.
G rafton, while recognizing and appreciating the many uses of digitized collections, points out a few areas where they fall short:
- Google’s use of OCR (optical character recognition) for indexing purposes inevitably results in retrieval errors;
- Efforts such as Google’s include the scanning of books for which copyright has not yet been cleared or ascertained;
- Access to these collections is still far from seamless, and in many cases requires special charges or permissions even if retrieval can be achieved;
- Due to the poor indexing, it is difficult for most scholars (let alone the rest of us) to keep on top of what documents are available electronically and through which portal;
and perhaps most interestingly:
- Access to original documents can offer information (through annotations and other markings) that is often unavailable via electronic means, and that describes the readings others have had of a particular item.
Grafton refers to John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s “social life of information“, which posits that “the form in which you encounter a text can have a huge impact on how you use it,” which clearly does not merely distinguish between electronic and book forms, but also illustrates the difference between encountering a poem in a 1000-page anthology as opposed to a deftly bound book of verse. Grafton suggests that, following Seely Brown and Duguid’s theory, in order to understand the impact of a text, one should find as many copies of a book as possible and study all their many annotations. (I get the feeling I will be looking up these fellows’ writing. I will also find some suitable studies on annotation to bring into this discussion.)