On this blog we have featured posts concerning digital history and the virtues of virtual libraries. A recent review essay in the TLS, now on-line, sheds more light on the matter. Peter Green analyzes Anthony Grafton's Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (Harvard, 2009) in "Google Books or Great Books? The Enduring Value of the Republic of Letters, in All Its Forms."
Grafton is well acquainted with the world of digital resources, says Green. Grafton surveys recent developments and looks at the great potential for research and the creation of a new scholarly community. With Google Books, Grafton writes, "you can study many aspects of French thought and literature as deeply in New York as in Paris, and a lot more efficiently."
Though Grafton acknowledges the plus side, he also turns a critical eye on the digital endeavor. Grafton, Green writes, ably points out the glitches and flat footedness of Google Books and other searchable collections. At the same time that Grafton recognizes the inherent promise of digitized texts, he also laudes the dusty, hallowed libraries of the west. In Green's words:
The further one trawls into the past, the clearer it becomes that, as Grafton says, 'whatever happens on screen, the great libraries of the Northern Hemisphere will remain irreplaceable for a long time”, and one of Google’s most excellent services is already as a guide to finding material in them rather than providing that material itself. “The real challenge now”, we learn, in another striking metaphor, “is how to chart the tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another and then to learn to navigate the new landscapes they are creating.” The conclusion Grafton reaches is that while the recent present will “become overwhelmingly accessible” online, for the past we still need a painstaking hands-on approach in the archives themselves. The transfer of documentary archives – even those of the US or the UK – to the web is still in its infancy, and Grafton makes a strong case for the need to consult originals rather than digitized images: one researcher traced the history of cholera outbreaks by sniffing letters in a 250-year-old archive to see which had been sprinkled with vinegar in the hope of disinfecting them. Yes, the young scholar is told, take every advantage of the new electronic Aladdin’s cave. But – and here Grafton shows a rare moment of deeply felt emotion – these streams of data, rich as they are, will illuminate rather than eliminate the unique books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you. For now, and for the foreseeable future, if you want to piece together the richest possible mosaic of documents and texts and images, you will have to do it in those crowded public rooms where sunlight gleams on varnished tables, as it has for more than a century, and knowledge is still embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable manuscripts and books. >>>