Phi Beta Cons

‘The Library in the New Age’

Robert Darnton — chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, historian of the book, and director of the largest or second-largest library in the world (depending how you count things) — has a fascinating essay in the New York Review of Books on the digitization of books and the continuing relevance of libraries. 
The essay has two parts. First, Darnton argues against assumptions that the internet has given us a world of information that is uniquely open and volatile. He writes, “every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable.” This is a cliché well worth assailing, and his anecdote about the representation of the American Revolution’s Battle of Brandywine — and another about his own work long ago at the Newark crime desk! — is particularly revealing.
The second part of his essay is a bit more questionable, I think. He says libraries will remain relevant — I don’t doubt that — but that they will because of the practical impossibilities of putting all written human knowledge online. He notes that 60 percent of books digitized by Google through agreement with five research libraries — Harvard (which Darnton directs), U-Mich., Oxford’s Bodelian, Stanford, and the New York Public Library — are unique holdings, with a copy in only one of those libraries. More works are being uncovered all the time, and there are major issues of copyright for works published after the mid-1920s. Given this, he speculates grandly that Google will never be able to digitize everything. It’s just a hunch, but I really would not bet against Google… 
He does make a good point that Google’s super-secret algorithm for ‘relevance’ is not a good fit for scholarly research. Google needs fewer mathematicians and computer scientists and more bibliographers, he says: what matters is not a single — i.e., the most cited — edition of a text, but often multiple editions that allow for a study of how they have been corrupted or altered over time. That said, knowing how academics obsessively track the number of people citing their work, I’d say a cult of ‘relevance’ is already well-ensconced in academia; Google would merely be quantifying it. (Note, please, the inverted commas: I don’t mean ‘relevance’ in the sense of being relevant to the ‘real world,’ but ‘relevant’ in the sense that a scholar’s work is frequently cited in the realm of ‘higher learning.’)
I could prattle on — but it’d be better if you just read Darnton’s essay. 

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.

Most Popular

Elections

Good Riddance to Kamala Harris

Per Edward-Isaac Dovere, Kamala Harris is no longer running for president. This is excellent, welcome news -- the cause for celebration. Good riddance! May Harris's failed attempt to find higher office destroy her career and sully her reputation for all time. I'm told that I'm not supposed to feel like this -- ... Read More
Elections

Good Riddance to Kamala Harris

Per Edward-Isaac Dovere, Kamala Harris is no longer running for president. This is excellent, welcome news -- the cause for celebration. Good riddance! May Harris's failed attempt to find higher office destroy her career and sully her reputation for all time. I'm told that I'm not supposed to feel like this -- ... Read More
Culture

A Tyrannical Minority and Silent Majority

As I noted Monday on the Corner, British journalist James Kirkup has done a great public service in sharing a document that helps explain how the transgender movement, which many privately admit has overreached and is unconvincing, has been so successful so quickly. The document was produced by a major ... Read More
Culture

A Tyrannical Minority and Silent Majority

As I noted Monday on the Corner, British journalist James Kirkup has done a great public service in sharing a document that helps explain how the transgender movement, which many privately admit has overreached and is unconvincing, has been so successful so quickly. The document was produced by a major ... Read More