Saturday, September 16, 2006

To Digitise or not to digitise.........?

"The critical decision is how to preserve the information, not the format in which it exists." writes Bonita Wilson, editor of D-Lib Magazine. Bonita's comment on the debate about the digitisation of print-based information was inspired by the current controversy at California State Polytechnic University, where some of the University's professors and library staff are up in arms about the removal of print materials in favour of digitised resources. [See Scott Carlson's article (1)]

The debate is taking place within the isolated ivory tower of academia partly because it is only reported in publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education, (which requires a subscription to read online and is not readily available in printed format in either shops or libraries in the UK) or in specialist online publications like D-Lib, but the issues raised by the chucking out of printed formats simply because of the availability of online versions are enormous and will have have a long term impact on the shaping of our culture.

Take the most obvious example Shakespeare's plays. Our collective understanding of how Shakespeare's plays were written, printed and received by his contemporaries would be poorer without the meticulous reserch that has been undertaken on the way books were printed, paginated and bound. Typefaces, watermarks, the way signatures are folded, even the way pages were cannibalised from leftovers from earlier editions have all informed and transformed our knowledge of Shakespeare. None of this information is captured by digitisation. Of course it is possible to conceive of Shakespeare's plays simply in terms of information, or even just marks on paper, but this is a superficial perspective in both senses of the word - there is more happening beneath the surface.

Another example was provided by Lisa Jardine in her Point of View talk for BBC Radio last June, where she describes how a minute hand-written marginal note found in a copy of a small book in Latin published in Basle in 1559 by an exiled English protestant enabled a researcher to recover an "animated debate between reader and author about how imaginative and free one was entitled to be in turning a text from an ancient language into a modern one. It's a debate intensely relevant to English religious politics of the time, centred as that was on the translation and interpretation of the Bible."

Lisa goes on to point out that "This pint-sized book...does not figure in the latest, much-used, electronic resource for historians of the English literary heritage, which only reproduces books in English."

I realise that I am providing outstanding examples of the point that I am trying to make, but I am not arguing for every copy of every book to be retained in perpetuity - and I don't think anyone else is either. Indeed I welcome digitisation programmes for many reasons - they are potentially democratic in that they can make unique, rare and obscure works widely available to everyone, they enable new ways of researching information, and they reduce wear and tear on fragile originals. But digitisation should not provide license for the well-documented massacre in the library book stacks.
Bonita's editorial is available here:

and the transcript of Lisa's talk is available here:

also relevant to this debate is Nicholson Baker's book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001):
Baker's book was in fact triggered by the discard of printed material from the British Library.

(1) Carlson, Scott. "Library Renovation Leads to Soul Searching at Cal Poly: Professors and librarians complain about a shift from print to online materials." The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 1, 2006