In his latest book, Codex in Crisis, published by Crumpled Press in May, history professor Anthony Grafton reflects on the staggering amount of information now available on the Web: millions of digitized books, scholarly journals, and archival material accessible to anyone with a laptop and Internet access. He looks at how digitization has changed the nature of reading, scholarship, and publishing, and examines the future of books and libraries. Grafton, who calls himself “a lover of old libraries,” says there are some things a scholar can learn only by studying printed books in bricks-and-mortar libraries. Grafton spoke with PAW’s Katherine Federici Greenwood.
How has the Web changed the nature of research for scholars and students?
Digitization has changed entirely not just the way we do research, but also the way we teach. ... For instance, instead of having to put copies on reserve and force people to sit in perhaps not-altogether-pleasant rooms, we now just put a link on our course’s Blackboard site. Students can do their reading perfectly comfortably on screen or print things out. ... Most of my colleagues now will go especially to smaller archives, which may not have the facilities for photographs or digitization, with a digital camera and simply bring home their own photographed, archived images. So instead of trying to decipher a stack of contracts by a medieval notary in the archive for a whole summer, you can photograph them in a day and take the photographs home.
Why are actual books and archives still necessary?
There’s no way that every copy of every book will ever be digitized. And some information you can’t glean from a digitized copy of the original. For example, scholars who study the history of books are interested not only in the content of a famous text like The Wealth of Nations ... but also in how people actually read it, who bought it, who owned it, what sorts of notes they took, whether the binding was leather or cloth. Scholars can read physical books for that kind of information, the way a scout reads a trail.
In Codex in Crisis I use the example of a scholar working in a Portuguese archive who smelled 250-year-old letters, to see if they smelled like vinegar. Because in the 18th century, when cholera struck in the city, they would sprinkle letters going out with vinegar to disinfect them. So real documents, material documents, real books give you huge amounts of information which are either in practical terms difficult to digitize, or are in some cases impossible to digitize.