Friday, February 6, 2009

navigating the information landscape

Robert Darnton has, again, written a thoughtful account on "Google and the Future of Books" in the February 12, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books. Prompted by Google's recent settlement with the authors and publishers suing it for copyright violation in its vast digitization project, Darton wonders, "How can we navigate through the information landscape that is only beginning to come into view?"

For Darnton, the key forward is, unsurprising, through the Enlightenment, both in its ideal Republic of Letters and in its less democratic pratice of who had access to that Republic. As Darnton argues, the high ideals of the Enlightenment turned, in time, into the professionalization of knowledge and subsequently degraded to our current undemocratic world in which scholarly journals are produced through the free labor of professors and sold to libraries at insanely high prices. That's an information landscape through which we cannot continue to navigate as we have been, requiring young scholars to write books to advance professionally, but in circumstances where presses cannot afford to publish books because libraries aren't buying books because the budgets are all going toward annual journal subscriptions. (One wonders who will continue to provide the free labor for those journals at this rate.)

It's this scenario that gives Darnton pause. The way of the future is digitization, but at what cost? Are we going to reenact that Enlightment fall from grace, moving from open access to closed doors? Darnton questions, as others have, Google's power over this future of digital futures. In his view, "the settlement will give Google control over the digitizing of virtually all books covered by copyright in the United States." What does that mean?

We could have created a National Digital Library—the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy—the control of access to information—to be determined by private lawsuit.

It's not that Darnton is against digitization, just the terms on which that digitization is happening.

But we, too, cannot sit on the sidelines, as if the market forces can be trusted to operate for the public good. We need to get engaged, to mix it up, and to win back the public's rightful domain. When I say "we," I mean we the people, we who created the Constitution and who should make the Enlightenment principles behind it inform the everyday realities of the information society. Yes, we must digitize. But more important, we must democratize. We must open access to our cultural heritage. How? By rewriting the rules of the game, by subordinating private interests to the public good, and by taking inspiration from the early republic in order to create a Digital Republic of Learning.

It's Darnton at his utopian high. And it's a stirring vision. Wouldn't it be great? A Digital Republic of Learning where we can all access the fount of knowledge without fees and ivory walls. One of the things that I found the most frustrating at various times of my variously employed career is missing access to databases of digital learning. Let's democratize, if it's not too late!

But let's pause, too, for a moment. As a scholar of early modern books, I have to wonder, how do we democratize those? Do we just agitate for free EEBO, Early English Books Online for everyone everywhere? Will those books be read? Will those books be understood? Every semester I see my students interact with early printed texts for the first time and initially, they can hardly make sense of what they are looking at. Why do they mix up their i's and j's? Why are there f's instead of s's? Why can't they spell? What's that word down there at the bottom of the page and where are the page numbers?!

Libraries, digital and otherwise, make texts available. But it is teachers who enable them to be read. Scanning all the books in the world won't make a Digital Republic of Learning if we don't value reading and learning in the first place.


a-waffling said...

Thanks for your thoughtful remarks! I pointed to them (and quoted the last part) over at W4RF at

Sarah Werner said...

I'm glad you found my post useful! I do think that sometimes we focus too much on access to books, forgetting that access does not equal reading which, in turn, does not necessarily entail understanding. On the best days, I hope that I'm teaching my students to understand, in many ways, what might otherwise stay inaccessible even when they are holding those books in their hands. On the less-best days, I suppose all I might be doing is thrilling them with old books--not such a bad thing, either, I hope!