I’m a bibliophile. As a child I was a voracious reader. The World Book Encyclopedia was one of my favorite toys. Not only were the words and pictures fascinating, the heavy books made a great building material for forts and other construction projects. Having been a voracious reader of the small library at home, my first reaction to a public library (in my case, the school library in my Catholic elementary school) was a shock. How in the world was I ever going to read all those books?
That is the same reaction I had when I read Anthony Grafton’s essay in the latest issue of the New Yorker — Future Reading: Digitization and its discontents:
In fact, the Internet will not bring us a universal library, much less an encyclopedic record of human experience. None of the firms now engaged in digitization projects claim that it will create anything of the kind. The hype and rhetoric make it hard to grasp what Google and Microsoft and their partner libraries are actually doing. We have clearly reached a new point in the history of text production. On many fronts, traditional periodicals and books are making way for blogs and other electronic formats. But magazines and books still sell a lot of copies. The rush to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical moments in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently. It will result not in the infotopia that the prophets conjure up but in one in a long series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers, and producers of text have learned to survive.
Learning to survive seems to be an appropriate operative condition. More and more I feel overrun by information. I find it harder and hard to find the piece of information I am looking for on the web, when the search engines return thousands of items to my queries. Grafton’s essay is a wonderful history of our fight to stay ahead of the tide. He also describes the role of books as physical artifacts — full of annotations and such which provide insights into the social life of the information.
As the essay points out, we will continue to be overwhelmed with information. That seems to be a defining characteristic of the I-Cubed Economy. Coping mechanisms include new information technologies. But there will still be the old fashioned bibliographic version of shoe leather approach — wading through tons of not-so relevant information. The flip side of that is the strong positive: the joy of discovery!
BTW – Grafton has also provided an online companion to the essay — Web Sightings: Adventures in Wonderland — which contains a wealth of links and reference points.