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Of Bits and Books

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Kevin Kelly’s recent article Scan This Book! in the NY Times recounts the efforts of companies like Google and non-profit groups such as Brewster Kahle’s Archive.org to scan the world’s libraries into digital form.

Scanning technology has been around for decades, but digitized books didn’t make much sense until recently, when search engines like Google, Yahoo, Ask and MSN came along. When millions of books have been scanned and their texts are made available in a single database, search technology will enable us to grab and read any book ever written. Ideally, in such a complete library we should also be able to read any article ever written in any newspaper, magazine or journal. And why stop there? The universal library should include a copy of every painting, photograph, film and piece of music produced by all artists, present and past. Still more, it should include all radio and television broadcasts. Commercials too. And how can we forget the Web? The grand library naturally needs a copy of the billions of dead Web pages no longer online and the tens of millions of blog posts now gone — the ephemeral literature of our time. In short, the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time.

The vision Kelly casts is understandably utopic – conceived roughly as the libraries of the world accessible on a device the size of an ipod. Let me be clear what an excellent, very good, exceedingly fantastic idea this is. Quite.

Now, on to the problems! Well, not really problems. The actual problems concern copyright issues, which I believe are temporary and will dissolve under the combined weight of customer demand and publisher remorse (when they (or their shareholders) realize what colossal idiots they are) but I’ll digress on those for the time being.

For me, there is an existential issue raised by redirecting the goal of our utopic vision from the hallowed halls of an Alexandria, the temple of the book, a physical house indwelled by the spirit of knowledge, to the utilitarian emphasis of Kelly’s ipod idolatry – a memex that serves as a non-physical extension of our knowledge. The difference is that shift in emphases – from books to bits, from experiential to transactional, from careful compilation to the surgical precision of the well-phrased query, from serendipity to algorithmic exactitude, from the joy of free-range reading to the efficient extraction of information. I don’t mean to be nihilistic here, but in our pursuit of the all-access ideal, I believe we’ll discover the true nature of book-ness and what it means for us as learning beings.

Let me make it clear that I’m neither objective nor entirely rational. I’m a library troll. I’m also a book slut, but that’s a secondary, though related condition. I find the musty fiber-filled air of libraries restores my soul to mind-like-water calmness. The library for me, is something womb-like, the alpha to which I long to return, the primordial cauldron from which my psyche oozed. I delight in restoring improperly shelved books to their appropriate place and the cottony feel of pre 70′s cloth-bound hardbacks. The quiet is exquisite.

Many of my fondest memories take place in libraries and I can still mentally wander the stacks according to the physical location of the subjects that were important to me in the The Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle, Me, the libraries at UMPI, and at Emerson, the Boston Public Library at Copley Square and MD Anderson at the University of Houston. These memories and ideas are closely associated with the physical nature of the books, with the physical experience of the libraries. My ability to remember physical attributes about the circumstances which accompany satisfying reading experiences and discoveries indicates not only that I enjoy libraries, but also something about the nature memory and of ourselves as aesthetic beings. I cannot think of Marcus Aurelius or his Meditations without immediately conjuring the back rows of the second floor of the Turner Library next to the water fountain and offices. My point is that I doubt an ipod screen would have the same aesthetic memory clues. Libraries in this sense are not just book repositories, but memory palaces in which we construct and later associate the connections we form to the works we encounter there. It took me about 5 seconds to locate a copy of Meditations online, but I doubt I would have the same experience of reading it.

I don’t see any retreat from the vision Kelly describes. The advantages of such a digital repository are too many to mention and will only multiply with time. We would make a grave mistake, however, in assuming the value of a library will be diminished, in the same way that it would be a mistake to have assumed that photography would replace painting, or that computers would spell doom for the paper industry. Photography obviously influenced painting, however, the paper industry responded in a number of ways to the advent of computers. How will the library change? In what ways will musty stacks be superior to the flickering screen? I have a feeling the ways will surprise us.

Disclaimer: I’ve only written about the first page or so of Kelly’s article, so you really should read Scan This Book! in its entirety or better yet, check out his website at KK.org

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