Here’s something from an online discussion I’d like to preserve here. I’m not posting it for class credit–just for my own interest (or vanity). These thoughts stem from reading Anthony Grafton’s article, “Digitization and its Discontents,” The New Yorker, November 5, 2007.
I agree with Grafton that humankind has struggled with information glut and access difficulties since the stone tablet libraries of Nineveh and the scrolls of Alexandria were in circulation. True, there is more information floating around today than ever before, but that was true in every age (except maybe the dark ages, but that’s another discussion).
I think digitalization is our newest method of coping with our informational growing pains. It’s not perfect, but I’m not sure any of our previous methods can be characterized as perfect either. There were access issues in ancient times in the form of illiterate populations, access issues throughout history in terms of specific populations being denied access to information (slaves in ancient Greece, Christians denied access to biblical texts in the vulgate, women and African Americans denied access throughout history). There were access issues with microfilm and microfiche in that very few people had personal microfilm and microfiche readers. I think this demonstrates that in the interest of the democratization of information, libraries must extend outreach efforts and strive to provide access to everyone through literacy programs, tech assistance programs, and efforts to connect the unconnected countries of the world to libraries both physical and digital.
I also think Grafton is right that all human information is not going to be captured and digitized any time soon. Information has been “left out” throughout history, from books left out of the Christian Bible to texts overlooked for conversion to microfilm. It is troubling to think about who is making the decisions today as to what will be digitally preserved and what won’t be. But do we preserve everything, down to the last child’s coloring book? One man’s trash is an archeologist’s treasure in 500 years. But I guess that passes into archival territory.
Still, as long as people prefer reading print on paper to text on screens, as long as parents want to take their children to story-time, as long as digital information is vulnerable to a powerful electromagnetic pulse, as long as people seek that Third Place for democracy and community, libraries must persist in bricks as well as bytes.
Anyone interested in the history of libraries in greater depth should check out Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles. It’s a facinating account. Thanks to Doc Martens for introducing me to it!