My colleague, Sarah Horowitz, pointed out Richard Darnton’s article in the June 12, 2008 New York Review of Books called “The Library in the New Age.” Darnton is Director of the University Library at Harvard and writes a wonderful piece about the future of research libraries in the face of Google’s effort to digitize the contents of Harvard’s library along with New York Public, Michigan, Stanford, and Oxford’s Bodleian. After outlining four major changes in information technology over the millenia, Darnton asserts that information has always been unstable and offers by way of example how news from the Revolutionary War front was distorted in its transmittal by the American and European press. (Librarians take note: Darnton views newspaper accounts not as primary sources that detail what happened but as sources that show how contemporaries viewed events.)
Darnton believes and demonstrates in this article that the Google digitization project will not supercede the role of research libraries, for the following reasons. Google is not digitizing all books; libraries will still house books that are not digitized; the Library of Congress, for example, has not joined the Google project. In most cases, special collections of libraries are not included in the digitization project. Copyright prevents most books published after 1923 from being digitized in full by Google. Electronic media are not as stable as books in research libraries. Digitization is not perfect; the process will create mistakes. Google will not classify or otherwise distinguish between editions other than through an algorithm based on demand; scholars will still have to view and compare the original copies of books. Google will not be able to convey the physicality of books, an important element of reading.
This issue of the New York Review of Books is now located–in paper form–in the cozy reading space on the second floor of the Tredway Library. If you insist, you can read it online but it’s not nearly as fun. The paper doesn’t crinkle, the pictures are missing (library reading rooms from around the world), and there are no columns. How dull–to read a newspaper article not in columns. — Margi