Sorting it all out
November 1, 2007 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Future Reading. Anthony Grafton explores what we can learn about the future of the text from the history of libraries, publishers, and the sorting of books. posted by Toekneesan (8 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

Excellent - very interesting reading. Thanks.
posted by Cassilda at 8:06 AM on November 1, 2007

Excellent, love the digital/print discussion. Ironically I just printed it out and will read it that way (2-pages at 50% reduction), find it easier for long essays.
posted by stbalbach at 8:07 AM on November 1, 2007

Good article (New Yorker), it's a sort of sober counter-point to the often starry-eyed vision that everything worth knowing is, or soon will be, online. For example the National Archives alone has over 9 billion documents, and that is just for one country for a few hundred years. The New York Public Library has put a huge collection of photos online, but only a few hundred thousand out of over 53 million!

The article led me to D-Lib Magazine a sort of info junkies dream, it highlights new online digital collections. Also the OCLC WorldMap is a cool way to compare library holdings around the world.
posted by stbalbach at 8:44 AM on November 1, 2007

BTW thanks for the introduction to Anthony Grafton, I'd never heard of him before but he has a lot of interesting work.
posted by stbalbach at 10:32 AM on November 1, 2007

Wonderful article.

Thank you, Toekneesan.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:57 AM on November 1, 2007

BTW thanks for the introduction to Anthony Grafton,

stbalbach, his footnote book is awesome. I recommend it highly.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:51 PM on November 1, 2007

An excellent article, which I was reading in the magazine yesterday (thus proving Grafton's point about the persistence of print media). I'm a huge fan of Grafton's work (as I've said before), and my own professional work as a manuscripts curator makes me very conscious of the vast amount of manuscript material that is unpublished, undigitized, and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

This passage gave me pause, though:

The Internet's technologies, moreover, are continually improving. Search engines like Google, Altavista, and Hot-Bot originally informed the user about only the top layers of Web pages. To find materials buried in such deep bodies of fact and document as the Library of Congress's Web site or JSTOR, a repository of scholarly journal articles, you had to go to the site and ask a specific question. But in recent years -- as anyone who regularly uses Google knows -- they have become more adept at asking questions, and the search companies have apparently induced the largest proprietary sites to become more responsive. Specialist engines like Google Scholar can discriminate with astonishing precision between relevant and irrelevant, firsthand and derivative information.

I wouldn't trust a search engine -- any search engine, no matter how good -- to make decisions for me about what is 'relevant' or 'irrelevant' to my research. That's my job, thank you very much -- and I don't want Google Scholar to give me an 'astonishingly precise' answer to my questions, I would prefer it to give me a slightly messy and imprecise answer, with a margin for serendipity. It is the seemingly 'irrelevant' information that can often be most important in leading one's research in new directions.

More generally, however, it seems to me that there is an interesting tension in this article. Part of Grafton's argument is that the new technology is not as new as it appears, it's simply the latest in a long line of new technologies that scholars have used to process information. Here I totally agree with him. Yet at the same time he seems to be arguing that things are getting better and better, as search technology becomes more and more efficient. Here I am more sceptical (and I suspect that Grafton himself may be more of a sceptic in private than he allows himself to appear in public). I see the potential benefits of the 'dash for digitization', but I think that Google and Microsoft have massively underestimated the magnitude of the task they have set themselves. I may be mistaken, but to me it seems very possible (to say no more) that search technology may become less and less efficient, as the amount of new information flooding online rapidly outstrips the ability of search engines to process it meaningfully.

It's easy to assume that search engines like Google Scholar are essentially labour-saving devices, taking the pain out of scholarly research just as washing machines and dishwashers offer to take the pain out of housework. I doubt this. They will certainly change the nature of scholarly research, and the nature of the end product, but I doubt very much whether they will make it any less time-consuming or labour-intensive. They may even make it more so.
posted by verstegan at 4:37 AM on November 2, 2007

Well the search engine for Metafilter is working ok, this time. I must have missed this thread and just came to post the article.

I very much agree with the 'interesting tension' you perceived verstegan. It was an ambiguous article at best and I enjoyed it mostly when it wasn't wrestling with the large digital -vs- print debate, about which it seemed to vacillate. There were quite a few interesting historical marginalia in there worth reading though.

I once asked here about finding news about digital collections and got no response and I doubt I would get any decent answers today. D-Lib magazine is mentioned above to which I once subscribed but, like the vast majority of sites, the focus tends to be aimed at library workers rather than consumers. In other words, one has to scan through a LOT of incidental (to those of us searching out news on new digital repositories or collections) technical material to find any nuggets.

To meet this end I subscribe to or read a lot of things, just to keep a fair handle on the current material /exhibitions that are available online. Probably the best is Resource Shelf which now has category feeds including 'resources'. But among other streams through which I wade are: Archivalia; 24HrMuseum; Intute and the ExLibris group. That's in addition to feeds from a dozen of the larger libraries actively digitising page images from books (plus many other keyword searches and various other sites). One new site which seems to straddle the technical and consumer angles well and I recommend is NYPLabs - a kind of a behind-the-scenes look at the elaboration or development of a digital library.
posted by peacay at 8:21 AM on November 4, 2007

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