Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Technologies of Knowledge

Every so often in a blogger's life, the stars are aligned, and the idea you've been sitting on for a while anyway suddenly becomes newsworthy. While the dynamic duo at Snarkmarket have sent their "EPIC 2014" doomsday predictions scattering across the blogosphere, there was another print-vs.-digital clash well worth a little consequence-exploration.

This week, the Chronicle of Higher Education features an article titled "College Libraries: The Long Goodbye." Apparently computers, having finally made ghastly research libraries manageable, now may be on the way to doing away with them altogether.

The bullet-point summary of the state of affairs might read something like this:

  1. Compared to software, books are expensive;
  2. Likewise, books take up too much space;
  3. And compared to outsourced tech specialists, so do librarians.
The author doesn't endorse these positions, but rather gives some arguments for the continued relevance of the research library. Some of these are quite ingenious: for example, the main problem for libraries is much less the obsolescence of print media then the sudden glut of new materials: more than three times as many books are published now versus just thirty years ago, not to mention new journals, periodicals, etc.

This might be a good moment to mention what some of us are calling the dematerialization thesis -- the argument, whether in valediction or lamentation, that digital media has overcome the meaningful physical limitations that characterized earlier forms. As far as I can tell, the locus classicus of this thesis (with respect to modernity writ large) is German sociologist Georg Simmel's 1899 book The Philosophy of Money, but another good source is Friedrich Kittler's more recent Discourse Networks 1800/1900, and its follow-up Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. There are all sorts of problems with this argument (which I'll detail at another time) but it's undeniable that faced with a space crunch, institutions are opting for what I'll call the greater material flexibility of digital media. Many libraries, perhaps most notably that of Stanford University, have made huge investments in converting or copying their collections into digital formats, and publishers have likewise targeted libraries as prime consumers of electronic texts, whether as a backup to or substitute for "the real thing."

Then today, the New York Times made the remarkable EPIC-esque announcement: "Google Is Adding Major Libraries To Its Database." It's true -- and there are no slouches, either. Stanford, Michigan, Harvard, and the always-difficult New York Public Library are all on board.

Since in-print books are going to be off the table, the real scoop is going to be in integrating these libraries remarkable collections of rare, out-of-print, and manuscript material. 99% of Americans won't care, but these are pure gold to most scholars, and until recently, most university libraries were known for hanging onto these texts like they were their balls: you used to have to either be a big name or get a big time research fellowship to even see these babies. (And I'm sure the real cream-of-the-crop will probably continue to be withheld.)

They also happen to be the texts whose conspicuous materiality (there he goes again) actually makes them best suited for popular digitization. Imagine -- now not just scholars, but undergrads and even middle and high schoolers can see and examine rare, delicate, or simply unavailable primary documents from anywhere in the world without having to travel long distances or actually get their grubby little hands all over them. For my money, the real steal won't be in electronic texts as such, but digital facsimilies of the real thing. Not only will books no longer go out of print -- they'll no longer even need to be printed. Yet we'll be able to maintain a significant degree of contact (ha ha) with the now-outmoded print culture of the past.

This is where Google has really surprised me. It may have been expected that Google would enter into the spheres of e-mail, blogging, social networks, and the like: these are the sort of fields that a start-up can start up, with the now-industry-standard limited exposure among a few dedicated partisans, eventually breaking into a wider, more lucrative market. But Harvard and Stanford are about as establishment and big-time as it gets, and between this venture and the new, hopefully improving Google Scholar, the big G has found a way both to go unexpectedly highbrow and perhaps to decisively entrench itself as the search engine of choice: the monstrous, ultimate technology of knowledge, decisively putting the autonomous nodes of the research library and the limited search engine to rest.

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