Kevin Kelly has a manifesto, â€œScan This Book,â€ in the New York Times Magazine. He suggests readers are about to enter paradise as books are digitized. Not only will the third world have access to the world’s greatest libraries (terrific; can we have reliable electricity with that?) but by swimming in a liquid sea of book soup everything written will be reinscribed, shared, modified in creative new ways, uncovered, linked, reborn. “In the clash between the conventions of the book, and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail.”
There is always in these utopian dreams the assumption that books within covers are separate and unsearchable and readers who read printed books have never shared their experiences, as if sharing and blending can only happen if the texts are digital. Libraries don’t lock books up; they put them together so they can be discovered. And readers have always shuffled, even when what they’re shuffling is on paper pages. Will discovery be easier with an electronic search engine? Certainly – if you’re looking for something specific. But a small library is sometimes better for discovery than a huge one. It’s just a different kind of discovery.
Digitizing books does highlight the problem of using “copy” as a key concept of law in a digital age. But being able to search the content of books online won’t fundamentally change the way we read or write. We already tag, shuffle, share, and reinscribe. The only real change in how we do this will come if publishers react to the “threat” of access (or the opportunity of licensing access) by moving to a pay-per-view model. Or if the invitation to modify texts means erasing the embarrassing bits of history.
The “revolutionary” affordances that Kelly describes of the digital library are true of the traditional library. Let’s hope we don’t lose them as publishers overreact to manifestos like these – or as people in power try to rewrite the record or sell it to the highest bidder. As Linda Kerber, President of the American Historical Association, points out in a frightening essay in the Chron, this utopian dream has a dark side. If we’re not vigilant, we could lose our national memory.