Saturday, November 3, 2007

Archive Fever

From "Future Reading," by Anthony Grafton, in last week's New Yorker:
The supposed universal library, then, will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money. The real challenge now is how to chart the tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another and then to learn to navigate the new landscapes they are creating. Over time, as more of this material emerges from copyright protection, we’ll be able to learn things about our culture that we could never have known previously. Soon, the present will become overwhelmingly accessible, but a great deal of older material may never coalesce into a single database. Neither Google nor anyone else will fuse the proprietary databases of early books and the local systems created by individual archives into one accessible store of information. Though the distant past will be more available, in a technical sense, than ever before, once it is captured and preserved as a vast, disjointed mosaic it may recede ever more rapidly from our collective attention.
A little grandiose in its metaphors, perhaps, but highly accurate, I think, in its diagnosis. I only question the statement that "Soon, the present will become overwhelmingly accessible." I'm not entirely sure what that means: "accessibility" is a word, like globalization, which assumes a certain solipsistic worldview yet presumes to have none, to be simply a description of the way a thing can be—"globalized" or "made accessible." The present is, of course, the only thing that actually is accessible, in a certain real-life sense, and it is indeed already "overwhelmingly" so. To walk through a large city is to feel a quite overwhelming sense of "accessibility." Just so, the planet is quite "globalized" already, in the literal sense of being made a globe. It is only our hubris which makes us think that our commerce or our technology is what creates a "globe" out of the earth.

What these words have in common, then, is not their promise of actual accessibility or globalization—that we have already, it is the natural state of things—but a promise of virtual accessibility or globalization—those things we have to create.

Is a First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays actually, existentially accessible? Of course it is, if I'm willing to go to a library to see it, and that has been the case for many years. Grafton does an otherwise remarkable job of casting the digital revolution in a plus ça change frame, but it is incredibly difficult not to be bowled over occasionally and believe (or express the belief) that the internet can actually bring the present to us—"overwhelmingly."

I love this paragraph from later in the article:
And yet we will still need our libraries and archives. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have written of the so-called “social life of information”—the form in which you encounter a text can have a huge impact on how you use it. Original documents reward us for taking the trouble to find them by telling us things that no image can. Duguid describes watching a fellow-historian systematically sniff two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks. Historians of the book—a new and growing tribe—read books as scouts read trails. Bindings, usually custom-made in the early centuries of printing, can tell you who owned them and what level of society they belonged to. Marginal annotations, which abounded in the centuries when readers usually went through books with pen in hand, identify the often surprising messages that individuals have found as they read. Many original writers and thinkers—Martin Luther, John Adams, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—have filled their books with notes that are indispensable to understanding their thought. Thousands of forgotten men and women have covered Bibles and prayer books, recipe collections, and political pamphlets with pointing hands, underlining, and notes that give insights into which books mattered, and why. If you want to capture how a book was packaged and what it has meant to the readers who have unwrapped it, you have to look at all the copies you can find, from original manuscripts to cheap reprints. The databases include multiple copies of some titles. But they will never provide all the copies of, say, “The Wealth of Nations” and the early responses it provoked.
I should say I am not anti-digitization in the least: I used Google Book Search, Amazon's "Search Inside" and Google Scholar heavily while writing my thesis. These tools expedited greatly finding the quotes I needed or pulling out quotes I had forgotten about. I think these tools can, if used properly, make scholarship more bold in terms of its scope and goals. If I can sit at my computer and index every reference to Hegel, Kojève, or Spengler that Saul Bellow ever made in his novels or essays, I believe I can give myself a greater warrant for expressing some definitive views of his philosophy of history, and of how that sense developed.

Or so I'd like to think.

No comments: