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Posts Tagged ‘William Hill Brown

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”*…

The redoubtable Robert Darnton contemplates our technological present and future– and what they might mean for libraries and books…

Information is exploding so furiously around us and information technology is changing at such bewildering speed that we face a fundamental problem: How to orient ourselves in the new landscape? What, for example, will become of research libraries in the face of technological marvels such as Google?

How to make sense of it all? I have no answer to that problem, but I can suggest an approach to it: look at the history of the ways information has been communicated. Simplifying things radically, you could say that there have been four fundamental changes in information technology since humans learned to speak.

the pace of change seems breathtaking: from writing to the codex, 4,300 years; from the codex to movable type, 1,150 years; from movable type to the Internet, 524 years; from the Internet to search engines, nineteen years; from search engines to Google’s algorithmic relevance ranking, seven years; and who knows what is just around the corner or coming out the pipeline?

Each change in the technology has transformed the information landscape, and the speed-up has continued at such a rate as to seem both unstoppable and incomprehensible. In the long view—what French historians call la longue durée—the general picture looks quite clear—or, rather, dizzying. But by aligning the facts in this manner, I have made them lead to an excessively dramatic conclusion. Historians, American as well as French, often play such tricks. By rearranging the evidence, it is possible to arrive at a different picture, one that emphasizes continuity instead of change. The continuity I have in mind has to do with the nature of information itself or, to put it differently, the inherent instability of texts. In place of the long-term view of technological transformations, which underlies the common notion that we have just entered a new era, the information age, I want to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable.

In 2006 Google signed agreements with five great research libraries—the New York Public, Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, and Oxford’s Bodleian—to digitize their books. Books in copyright posed a problem, which soon was compounded by lawsuits from publishers and authors. But putting that aside, the Google proposal seemed to offer a way to make all book learning available to all people, or at least those privileged enough to have access to the World Wide Web. It promised to be the ultimate stage in the democratization of knowledge set in motion by the invention of writing, the codex, movable type, and the Internet.

Now, I speak as a Google enthusiast. I believe Google Book Search really will make book learning accessible on a new, worldwide scale, despite the great digital divide that separates the poor from the computerized. It also will open up possibilities for research involving vast quantities of data, which could never be mastered without digitization… But their success does not prove that Google Book Search, the largest undertaking of them all, will make research libraries obsolete. On the contrary, Google will make them more important than ever.

[Darnton makes a compelling eight-point argument, concluding…]

… 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 repositories, 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.

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Library in the New Age,” from @RobertDarnton in @nybooks.

See also: “American Literature is a History of the Nation’s Libraries” (source of the image above).

And apposite: “The Most Influential Invention” (paper)…

* Groucho Marx

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As we’re careful not to throw babies out with the bathwater, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1789 that Boston publisher Isaiah Thomas and Company published what is generally considered to be the first American novel: 24-year-old William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature, which sold (poorly) for the price of 9 shillings.

Title page of the first edition (source)

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