Monday, January 7, 2008

Two Roads: Ancient/Future Libraries

This article, Future Reading:Digitization and Its Discontents , by book historian Anthony Grafton and published in last November's New Yorker, is a fascinating read.

I especially intrigued by his description of the two ways that we now have to access information:

For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously. No one should avoid the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen. … If you want deeper, more local knowledge, you will have to take the narrower path … 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.

When we digitally reformat our historical collections or build institutional repositories for new digital material, we are merely reinventing the old. There are historical precedents for such practices—in ancient and medieval librarianship and, in the more recent past, the historical manuscripts tradition—that show us how in the past libraries and archives supported a range of textual activities that enabled the sharing of knowledge.