Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Annalee Newitz on Digitization, Part I

In my first non-introduction post on University of Texas archival director Tom Staley and his traditionalist stance on digitization, I mentioned what I feel is one of the most readily apparent benefits of incorporating digital archiving practices: the potential to vastly increase public access to archival material through the Internet. Yet in her column for the online magazine AlterNet, self-described “surly media nerd” Annalee Newitz has outlined why an overly positive approach to digitization may lead us to place the proverbial cart before the horse. For this entry, I want to briefly consider the arguments she raises against the concept of a “universal digital library”, with a separate entry on “paperless archives” to follow.

Newitz is correct to identify the dangers of imagining a library that is “universal” and entirely digital, and her arguments against the concept—cost and maintenance, deciding what constitutes human knowledge, and the impossibility of including “everything” within a single collection—are sound. Anything that requires such a remarkably positivist view of computer technology and the ability to quantify and index human knowledge should always make us suspicious. Yet bearing in mind the potential benefits of access and democratization, this still leaves us with the question of experience: would using an entirely comprehensive and digitized library trump the combination of paper, “tactile” (for lack of a better term) and digital material that libraries and archives currently offer?

No. For one, libraries and archives may not collectively represent all of human knowledge, but they commonly offer quite a bit, and many of them do it for free. The latter aspect is incredibly important, for it is nearly impossible to imagine that a universal library could and would logistically operate on a free basis. Even if we set aside almost all logic at this point and conceptualize a free universal library, Internet access is often quite costly (not to mention scarce in many parts of the world), and thus adds a qualifier—one that negatively impacts the potential benefit of democratic access.

Moreover, while it is a given that Internet users read stories, articles, and shorter pieces of information online, most people still prefer to read book-length documents in the form of a book that they can purchase or borrow and ostensibly take just about anywhere with them. In my opinion, this says as much about the viability of books—one of the most incredible success stories of mass media history—as it does the inherent limitations of digital formats. To illustrate this in closing: last Wednesday, Apple introduced the iPod Touch, a $299-$399 device that will allow the user to not only play back music and video, but also browse the Internet through any accessible Wi-Fi network—making it one of the more affordable forms of portable Internet access on the market. This means that I could potentially read a public domain book that is available online through an iPod Touch, provided that I can find free Wi-Fi access. Or, I can find the same book at my local library (or purchase it) and have virtually no restrictions on where I can take and read that book. As good as the iPod Touch may be at some functions, it still doesn’t supersede the benefits that the traditional book format offers in terms of experience and accessibility—nor does much else, for that matter.

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