Anthony Grafton on digitisation in the New Yorker

Over in the New Yorker is an excellent article on digitisation, the various book scanning projects, and a historical look at the urge to record and catalogue everything written by historian Anthony Grafton.

Here are some pull quotes of specific note –

Historical antecedents to the controversies over Wikipedia;

For less erudite souls, simpler techniques abridged the process of looking for information much as Wikipedia does now. Erasmus said that every serious student must read the entire corpus of the classics and make his own notes on them. But he also composed a magnificent reference work, the “Adages,” in which he laid out and explicated thousands of pithy ancient sayings—and provided subject indexes to help readers find what they needed. For centuries, schoolboys first encountered the wisdom of the ancients in this predigested form. When Erasmus told the story of Pandora, he said that she opened not a jar, as in the original version of the story, by the Greek poet Hesiod, but a box. In every European language except Italian, Pandora’s box became proverbial—a canard made ubiquitous by the power of a new information technology. Even the best search procedures depend on the databases they explore.

And on the market choices of digitisation;

Google and Microsoft pursue their own interests, in ways that they think will generate income, and this has prompted a number of major libraries to work with the Open Content Alliance, a nonprofit book-digitizing venture. Many important books will remain untouched: Google, for example, has no immediate plans to scan books from the first couple of centuries of printing. Rare books require expensive special conditions for copying, and most of those likely to generate a lot of use have already been made available by companies like Chadwyck-Healey and Gale, which sell their collections to libraries and universities for substantial fees.

. . . snip . . .

Other sectors of the world’s book production are not even catalogued and accessible on site, much less available for digitization. The materials from the poorest societies may not attract companies that rely on subscriptions or on advertising for cash flow. This is unfortunate, because these very societies have the least access to printed books and thus to their own literature and history. If you visit the Web site of the Online Computer Library Center and look at its WorldMap, you can see the numbers of books in public and academic systems around the world. Sixty million Britons have a hundred and sixteen million public-library books at their disposal, while more than 1.1 billion Indians have only thirty-six million. Poverty, in other words, is embodied in lack of print as well as in lack of food. The Internet will do much to redress this imbalance, by providing Western books for non-Western readers. What it will do for non-Western books is less clear.

And concluding remarks on the future of the archives and libraries;

But these streams of data, rich as they are, will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you. The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books.