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in scholarly publishing and library acquisitions put pressure
Steve Strange, Philosophy
In their recent book, The
Social Life of Information, co-authors John Seely Brown and
Paul Duguid tell the story of the historian they encountered
in a European archive who patiently paused to smell each letter
he came to in the course of his research. When finally asked
what he was doing, the historian explained he was documenting
the outbreak of cholera in eighteenth-century Europe, and from
the faint scent of vinegar still on the letters he could tell
where people had attempted to disinfect against the further spread
of the disease.
Though hardly a representative example of research with primary
materials, this anecdote makes an important point. We learn not
only from the content of historical records but also from their
physical form. Primary documents remain important not because
they may smell like vinegar but because they are themselves elements
in a complex social exchange with its own lessons to teach.
There is a tendency among many technologists and the lay public
alike to speak of information as a generic and easily transferable
commodity--to speak, in other words, as if all information were
reducible to bits and bytes. But information stripped of its
social and cultural context is an impoverished thing indeed.
Don't get me wrong. The communication tools, the search and retrieval
capabilities, and the graphic reproductive qualities of the latest
technologies are indeed stunning and are transforming libraries
and the larger university in lasting ways. It matters, however,
whether we are discussing the latest article from JAMA, a set
of census data, today's newspaper, an historical diary, a body
of case law, an Elizabethan sonnet or, for that matter, Stephen
King's latest novella. Each of these texts emerges from and is
pitched to a specific and highly evolved community of readers
with its own practices of reading and its own larger disciplinary
values. Nevertheless, the notion that electronic texts will replace
books altogether continues to hold currency with a surprising
number of our colleagues who are willing, it sometimes seems,
to subsume all textual differences to a more generic notion of
Those of us who work in libraries hear reports of the death of
the book with some frequency. I am often asked what will become
of the library when all books are converted into electronic form.
Often the one asking seems to view the library as an antiquated
holdover from some distant past. I would insist, however, that
libraries not only remain vital, but that they remain vital because
they are places where the kinds of textual differences that I
am describing are widely respected.
It not only matters what particular text one has in mind but
also what use one envisions for it. To take only one example,
the Beck Center of the Woodruff Library holds 22 volumes of W.B.
Yeats' work in electronic form on a single cd. Students can search
that vast database for repetitions of word or phrase and, by
doing so, discover linkages within the body of Yeats' work that
would take many hours of study to find any other way. Among the
poems present in the database is the text of Yeats' "O Do
Not Love Too Long," a poem which the library also holds
in the 1908 volume of his Collected Works. In the printed
edition the poem appears in a larger series of poems composed,
as Yeats explains, "before the big wind of nineteen hundred
and three blew down so many trees, & troubled the wild creatures,
& changed the look of things. . . ." A student may also
find the poem in the library's copy of the October 1905 issue
of The Acorn, a lavish fine printing that is particularly
useful for one interested in the contemporary reception of Yeats'
work. If one visits special collections, one will find in Yeats'
own hand an early draft of this same poem written in that tumultuous
year soon after learning that the woman he loved had chosen to
Something here is stronger even than the smell of vinegar. Does
this handwritten draft contain unique information? I suppose
one could put it that way, but to speak of an artifact of such
personal power as information is certainly to constrict our reading
and to debase the whole practice of scholarship.
Are these multiple texts merely redundancies to be discarded
in favor of the latest offering from NetLibrary? I don't think
so. Each of these texts has important lessons to teach one able
to read both its content and its form. Rhetoric that reinforces
simplistic notions of texts has, I believe, contributed to a
dumbing down of reading in our own time. Our students need to
be aware of the vast potential of library collections for a range
of scholarly inquiry. Equally important, they must be trained
in and make a commitment to the disciplines that will inform
life-long patterns of learning.
The demands of different disciplines will vary, and rightly so.
Where one field may place the highest value on speed, another
may value the layers of nuance
present in a work's form and in the evidence of its larger cultural
assimilation. The challenge for our libraries is to serve those
complex and varied needs thoughtfully, without pitting technologies
against one another.
Towards that end, three major professional associations (the
Association of Research Libraries, the Modern Language Association,
and the American Historical Association) have issued a joint
report that outlines many of the challenges ahead for the nation's
research libraries. Titled Preserving Research Collections: A
Collaboration Between Librarians and Scholars, it attempts to
restore that balance between stewardship of our libraries' existing
print collections and of the newest electronic formats. The report,
which merits our attention, may be found at www.arl.org/preserv/prc.html.
As we confront the challenges this report outlines, we should
be guided, I believe, not by rhetoric that reduces learning to
a mere exchange of information but rather by a respect for the
rich layers of value in our library's collections and in our
practices of scholarship.