To say that Anthony Grafton has a "brilliant essay" in the latest New Yorker is a bit like saying that John Woo has directed an "action-packed movie:" in both cases, the adjective is superfluous, because their work is always like that. Grafton, a professor at Princeton, is unquestionably one of the smartest historians practicing today, and writes mainly on Renaissance and early modern intellectual history.

His New Yorker piece is on digitization and the quest for the universal library, and it nicely shows how a deep knowledge of the history of books and ideas can be used to help understand the future of new media.

Google’s [book scanning and library] projects, together with rival initiatives by Microsoft and Amazon, have elicited millenarian prophecies about the possibilities of digitized knowledge and the end of the book as we know it. Last year, Kevin Kelly, the self-styled “senior maverick” of Wired, predicted, in a piece in the Times, that “all the books in the world” would “become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas.” The user of the electronic library would be able to bring together “all texts—past and present, multilingual—on a particular subject,” and, by doing so, gain “a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don’t know.” Others have evoked even more utopian prospects, such as a universal archive that will contain not only all books and articles but all documents anywhere—the basis for a total history of the human race.

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.

Grafton argues that efforts to create universal libraries, and efforts to create personal tools for working with and making sense of ever-larger bodies of information, are as old as the written word itself. Further, as big as the projects that Google, Amazon and Microsoft have undertaken, they're still not likely to create a "universal library" that includes all the kinds of physical media– from early books to letters to architectural models– that make up the world of knowledge. Finally, though, Grafton argues that the future isn't one in which databases replace books and archives, but one in which they coexist:

these streams of [digital] data, rich as they are, will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you. The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books….

For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously. No one should avoid the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen. But if you want to know what one of Coleridge’s annotated books or an early “Spider-Man” comic really looks and feels like, or if you just want to read one of those millions of books which are being digitized, you still have to do it the old way, and you will have to for decades to come. At the New York Public Library, the staff loves electronic media. The library has made hundreds of thousands of images from its collections accessible on the Web, but it has done so in the knowledge that its collection comprises fifty-three million items.

In a way, this isn't a new argument: the "books and electronic resources will complement, each other, not compete" vision isn't unique to Grafton, though he does do an especially good job making it. (I suppose you might call the piece unoriginal, but it if is, it's unoriginal the way a Gil Evans Orchestra cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" is unoriginal: Evans didn't write it, but he definitely took it places Jimi never imagined.)

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