I realize, however, that considerations of "feel" and "smell" may seem to undercut my argument. Most readers care about the text, not the physical medium in which it is embedded; and by indulging my fascination with print and paper, I may expose myself to accusations of romanticizing or of reacting like an old-fashioned, ultra-bookish scholar who wants nothing more than to retreat into a rare book room. I plead guilty. I love rare book rooms, even the kind that make you put on gloves before handling their treasures. Rare book rooms are a vital part of research libraries, the part that is most inaccessible to Google. But libraries also provide places for ordinary readers to immerse themselves in books, quiet places in comfortable settings, where the codex can be appreciated in all its individuality.
In fact, the strongest argument for the old-fashioned book is its effectiveness for ordinary readers. Thanks to Google, scholars are able to search, navigate, harvest, mine, deep link, and crawl (the terms vary along with the technology) through millions of Web sites and electronic texts. At the same time, anyone in search of a good read can pick up a printed volume and thumb through it at ease, enjoying the magic of words as ink on paper. No computer screen gives satisfaction like the printed page. But the Internet delivers data that can be transformed into a classical codex. It already has made print-on-demand a thriving industry, and it promises to make books available from computers that will operate like ATM machines: log in, order electronically, and out comes a printed and bound volume. Perhaps someday a text on a hand-held screen will please the eye as thoroughly as a page of a codex produced two thousand years ago.
Meanwhile, I say: shore up the library. Stock it with printed matter. Reinforce its reading rooms. But don't think of it as a warehouse or a museum. While dispensing books, most research libraries operate as nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses. They acquire data sets, maintain digital re-positories, provide access to e-journals, and orchestrate information systems that reach deep into laboratories as well as studies. Many of them are sharing their intellectual wealth with the rest of the world by permitting Google to digitize their printed collections. Therefore, I also say: long live Google, but don't count on it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Robert Darnton, in the NYRB, on "The Library in the New Age"