There has been a spike in the discussion of books and technology in the past few weeks– prompted by Tristram Hunt in the Observer (‘Online is fine, but history is best hands on‘) and James Gleick last week (‘Books and Other Fetish Objects‘). Most recently, Sarah Werner has responded most eloquently and sassily yet to how unproductive this back-and-forth can be, for all its rhetorical flourish– and she’s also given a direction forward for that discourse, and so does the comments section of her post. Yesterday in an interview, the venerable Robert Darnton laid out his plan for a digital library that is open to the public and not run by a for-profit organization like Google. This is the right direction, although still limited by the fact that by taking such an endeavor out of the hands of a company we are still not truly free: the world wide web is still privatized. But Darnton is still Salvation, not least because he has the mind to do this and the serious institutional backing.

DARNTON: People sometimes announce that we have entered “the information age” as if information did not exist in other times. I think that every age was an age of information, each in its own way and according to the available media … .One thing we have learned from the new discipline known as “the history of the book” is that one means of communication does not displace another. Manuscript publishing actually expanded after the invention of printing by movable type, and it continued to flourish for three centuries after Gutenberg. Instead of lamenting “the death of the book,” I believe we should celebrate new possibilities of combining the printed codex with electronic technology … .The information ecology is getting richer, not thinner.

In his satire, The Battle of the Books (1704), Jonathan Swift literally depicts a battle among the shelves of a library between armies of authors, the Ancients of Greek and Rome and their admirers are pitted against the “Moderns”, writers who reject the authority of the likes of Virgil and Homer. That Swift so literally scatters pages of wounded books in an ink bath of violence and destruction makes the point absurdly enough: you don’t have to choose between ancient and modern. There is much from that situation that speaks to debates between digital and analogue books today, as if anyone had to pick just one.

Some of the coverage of the battle has very eloquently upheld the distinction between digital/non-digital formats (some might phrase it digital/physical, but that’s not true), some of it, as Darnton’s here, has very eloquently pointed out how misguided that conception is, when bibliophiles let their imaginations run away into some kind of post-apocalyptic realm where books no longer exist, Mad Max: Bibliodome, &c. Hopefully we’re coming to a point when the latter wins out for good, certainly this blog is dedicated to that on some level – proving technologies as concurrent, digital media as a companion to the non-digital book, from my most detailed posts to the most trivial blurbs pointing out something curious.

Most of the millenarian apocalypticism we’ve been hearing confuses what is companionable from what is comparable. One reason for this is that the language of digital technology tends to tie its predecessors a little too close to itself: we will think of the book being ‘replaced’ by the computer just as, among computers and cellphones, versions give way to one another– MacBook to MacBookPro, IPad1 to Ipad2, and so on. The exponential acceleration of technology’s development from the 50s onward is unprecedented in its scale, Apple updates its products at least once a year if not more, and we apply that mind-boggling scale to other objects like the book, even though it operates in a totally different physical and historical context.

On the model of companionship, things are different, because books are companions to digital culture, too; it works both ways. relays information in a different way (prediction: just as we have visual and aural learners, so too will digitisation force the tactile learner into the light of day). And I can think of three signs that prove the two are companionable in more instances than they are at odds.

  1. We’re mediating ambition with practicality: even the Internet Archive is relying on print, because the burst of possibilities offered by the digital can only be practically grounded by print. Print has emerged as a physical organizing principle that can temper perceived superfluities of the world wide web.
  2. On the other hand, the web increasingly points outside of itself to libraries and archives – it’s been the primary call-to-arms for the crises libraries have faced, for example, as well as for putting many collections that might not have been known on the map. Never has the bookish community felt so big, this is something the republic of letters couldn’t even do.
  3. The economies of E-Books and Print on Demand continue to be treated as secondary to printed books, culturally and economically, and increasingly so as we push further along into digital readership. Even shitty paperback editions are good for critical discussion.
  4. Information relayed through books does not face the same obstacles and privacy concerns as in digital format, I think some will feel safer leaving a paper trail in the future than a digital one.

There are quality control dangers, for sure – we are still in fairly early stages of the googilization of scholarship, which means shoddy work can slip through the cracks. I’ve seen it – a distinguished Masters’s thesis that basically turns a google search of ‘furniture’ in the complete works of Shakspeare into prose. But that too will pass as the abundance of information allows us to sharpen our critical knives (not to mention those of our admissions programs) and ultimately push our work further. Just look at what Franco Morietti is doing at Stanford with his ‘Distant Reading’, an integrative approach to the sociology of literature that could not have been dreamed of until now. Both of these examples, the bad and the good, endanger something completely different from the physical bodies they impact – it’s not books and their feelings at stake here so much as methodologies like close reading and other more poetic and theoretical approaches. And bibliographical standards: what will an updated ABC’s for Book Collectors look like when it takes into account Print on Demand in its discussion of editions? There are many ways in which digital practices will push us to rethink the central command of bibliography, based as it is on collations of epochal books like Shakespeare’s first folio, or the Septuagint. But even then, it’s a rethinking we would have needed anyway.