Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I don't know where all the time has gone! One minute it was the start of the semester, and now it's Thanksgiving. I'm particularly sad that I dropped the ball after my last post on e-books. I'd really meant to pick up the conversation but, unsurprisingly now that I look back at it, it was hard to pull my thoughts together.

One of the things that has struck me the most is the weird way in which conversations about e-books tend to rocket between two polar positions: "I love books and e-books are an abomination!" and "I love my e-book and print is dead!" Both seem ridiculous to me in their totalizing insistence--surely the rise of electronic books aren't going to fully eclipse books. Did radio wipe out television? Did cinema destroy theater? I don't even think that the codex eliminated the value of tablets and scrolls. So to imagine that the future is bookless seems silly.

Robert Darnton's recent conversation with Diane Rehm on her radio show exemplified this push-pull polarization. Despite his best efforts to make subtle these distinctions and to work with the sort of nuance that makes his scholarship so interesting, many of the host and caller comments kept coming back to this fear of the death of the book, as if it is impossible to love reading and to love books and to also embrace the possibilities of digitization. (If you haven't yet read Darnton's new book, you can access many of its constituent parts in their earlier versions via the handy list at Early Modern Online Bibliography. I should pause, too, to say that there are lost of good conversations happening at that blog about these concerns.)

For some other subtle thoughts about how book historians might respond to e-books and digitization, I highly recommend a bunch of Whitney's posts at diapsalmata: the first builds on my last post and encourages a material approach to the work of digitizing, subsequent posts think about why the future isn't here yet and the relationship between the digital and the archive.

Whitney's most recent post raises these questions again in light of the new Shakespeare Quartos Archive, something that I'll be looking at and blogging on soon. In the meantime, though, you might be wondering what a photograph of Pollard and Redgrave's Short-Title Catalogue is doing illustrating this post. Here's the answer: I am the proud new owner of all three volumes. Why would I shell out the big bucks for something that is now freely available online? Because even though it has been turned into an electronic database, the printed catalogue provides information that isn't carried over to the online one, and it can be used in ways that I sometimes find harder to navigate online. I wouldn't want to get rid of the ESTC by any stretch of the imagination. It's a great thing that it is now available to all and sundry. But it doesn't mean that we're throwing away our printed ones, either.

On that note, happy Thanksgiving to my American readers and happy reading to you all!


Bavardess said...

I've also been a bit perplexed about the all-or-nothing polarity that seems to be developing around the question of e-books, at least in the mainstream media. I can definitely see that both the printed book and the e-book are and will remain relevant for different purposes for the foreseeable future. E-books are great for information that changes regularly (like textbooks) and probably also for 'throwaway' airport fiction, when you just want to get something quickly and easily to fill a temporary gap. I imagine they would also make books much more accessible for anyone with vision impairment or similar problems.

Lately, I've been wondering if the advent of e-books will also spark new interest in quality printed editions as collectibles/artworks (as I contemplate the latest tempting mailing from The Folio Society).

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Aaron said...

The 2nd edition of the STC has been, without exception, the best book purchase that I've made in the last couple of years. I frankly couldn't do the work that I do without it.

Unfortunately, the ESTC simply doesn't yet hold a candle to its print predecessor for a number of reasons. Though one would think that a digital source would be best for doing quantitative work (publication trending, popularity assessment, etc.), for example, the ESTC does not yet sufficiently distinguish between editions, issues, and variants, which can lead to gross overestimates if one uses its results for counting purposes without appropriate care. That said, though, scholars have made mistakes when incorrectly using Rider's chronological index (in the 3rd volume of the STC) in quantitative studies.

Wing, unfortunately, is not as sophisticated as the STC, but it is still a nice resource to have in print if you have the money to spare sometime.

Basically, congratulations on the purchase!