^Link above to an article on Stanford’s move to an all digital library.^
I more or less have split feelings on digitizing libraries. On the one hand it will allow easier access to materials, cut down on space which in turn allows for more materials to be brought in to the collection. On the other hand, I like books. I’m not saying this as an old curmudgeon that loves how books smell and dislikes anything scanned and displayed on a computer. No, my reason for being weary of a transfer to an all digital library stems from my brief time working at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library.
I worked at Yale as one of several acquisition assistants, one of my daily jobs was to make comparisons between the new books we received and the copies that we already had in the collection. We had several copies of the same edition of certain books, and while on face level they might all seem identical each one had slight variations to it that made the book unique. Many had autographs from the authors, printing errors, odd signs and notes of who had previously owned the copy, and various other tiny variants that caused the physical book itself to tell a story separate from the story written and printed in the book. When people came to Beinecke to research they were researching certain scholars/writers/historical famous people’s books for signs of that person’s personality. They wanted to not only see what kind of books they read but what they did with the books, what sections of a particular history book did Ezra Pound underscore for example, what kind of doodles can be found in the margins of books owned by Marcel Proust, that sort of thing.
Working at Beinecke had me appreciate the little things that could be found in books and what we choose to write, underline, and doodle in books tell future readers about ourselves. Imagine going to an undergraduate library and taking out a book for a class on literature of the Romantic period, as you flip through a book that has been on the shelf since the 1960s you’ll stumble upon sections underlined, and briefly expounded upon in margins made by past students. Some notes may help guide you as you study, while other notes will serve as a distraction as you plug through yet another book on Nathaniel Hawthorn. Will these worked over copies of books find their way into the digital collection? Ten bucks says that most libraries will opt for scanning in the more pristine copies in their collection, and once digitized they will remain static and sterile for as long as the servers run. Gone will be the experience of unintentional collaboration between past and present scholars, gone will be the little marks of life that prove that a certain text has been used repeatedly for a certain paper assigned from that one professor who’s been around since velociraptors ruled the track and field, and gone will be the joy of finding a poem scribbled by some undiscovered poet in the blank pages at the end of a book.
Yes, a lot of this has to do with being overly romantic about the book being a unique piece of art and a window into past readers’ lives, but for me that is what makes libraries interesting. All those books were once read by someone and a decent portion of those readers have left their imprint on the books they held. Libraries don’t just hold books, they hold the secrets of those that read books.
Also in the article above theres a tiny line towards the end that discusses the process of picking which copy, translation, censored edition of a book that will eventually find its way into the digital collection. For example, The Adventures of Huck Finn. Do you want the cleaned up edition, the original text, or the edition that has illustrations that make blatant remarks on the politics of the time in which Twain first published the book (E.W. Kemble’s illustrations I believe…)? This is probably the more serious drawback to complete digitization as there may no longer be multiple editions available unless the library selectors really want to add different copies of the same title to the hefty load that will already be on their servers. Still, I enjoy my rant.