The New Yorker is as wrong about e-libraries as Martin Luther apparently was about paper books

futureofreadingarticle Here's a challenge for The New Yorker. Can its contributors write up e-libraries without droning on about how we'll always need paper books? Is every e-book lover an arson-minded Visigoth eager to burn down the great paper collections or rob them of funding? And do we all hate the idea of paper backups---or, for that matter, Main Street bookstores? In Future Reading: Digitization and its Discontents, the latest e-skepticism from the magazine, the famed scholar Anthony Grafton wisely points out the shortcoming of existing digitization projects, such as the gaps even in the planned collections. But he barely mentions the Internet Archive's Open Content Alliance and refers not once by name to Brewster Kahle, the brilliant MIT-educated founder of the archive who for years has been addressing the "Can we do it?" details of a universal library. The questions Grafton raises, in the magazine's November 5 issue, should matter to e-publishers and others in E, not just librarians and archivists. Books are the ultimate long-term medium. Without trustworthy storage and the ability to enjoy digital books reliably in the future---major reasons why proprietary formats and DRM worry me---how can we take e-books as seriously as literature as we do paper books? I, too, am an e-skeptic, but, I hope, more open to the possibilities than Grafton is. Not just helter-skelter, please I want to see every book, every other document of importance, digitized someday---not just the texts but the full images. It's an elusive goal, but we can at least strive for well-stocked national digital libraries and cheer on government-related international efforts as well as Brewster Kahle's. I want master indexing and comprehensive, typo-proof searches, and I don't want the preservation---on paper or in bits and bytes---to happen helter-skelter. We're talking about far, far more than navigation and discovery issues. The social rewards of a universal library, complete with attention paid to reading devices and integration with existing libraries and schools, could be substantial. As Brewster has observed, the attitude of young people today is, "If it doesn't exist on the Internet, it doesn't exist." Despite all the high-minded talk of encouraging students to use the library in person, a laudable goal, should we stake the future of books to this? We should worry not just about physical preservation of books but about preservation of society's interest in them.

And that means easily availability—-with, I would hope, provisions for fair compensation for writers and publishing houses, and due attention paid to the sustainability of publishers and bookstores. Via the TeleRead proposal, which has been evolving since 1992, I’ve laid out the basic possibilities.


Unfortunately Grafton chooses to don blinders and downplay visions like Brewster’s or mine—not fully attainable today but certainly worth striving toward. Too focused on limited academic effort and profit-driven initiatives like Google’s, he makes the sweeping prediction that “the Internet will not bring us a universal library, much less an encyclopedic record of human experience. None of the firms now engaged in digitization projects claim that it will create anything of the kind. The hype and rhetoric make it hard to grasp what Google and Microsoft and their partner libraries are actually doing…”

But wait! Grafton himself has “worked on a project studying the impact of digital history on libraries and archives around the world” and acknowledges the riches already online. Furthermore, he starts his piece by praising the importance of the New York Public Library to the young Alfred Kazin and says that “Even Kazin’s democratic imagination could not have envisaged the hordes of the Web’s actual and potential users, many of whom will read material that would have been all but inaccessible to them a generation ago.” Exactly! A TeleRead-style library of books, images and sounds might have resulted in a work of even greater consequence than On Native Grounds. If nothing else, I wonder how familiar Grafton is with the latest possibilities of shared annotations. I’d love to see The New Yorker grant me space for a detailed reply.

Meanwhile Grafton the historian should understand the risks of bold pessimism. Here is Martin Luther decrying the large number of books when it was just a faction of today’s count, even if we limit ourselves just to the output of well-regarded scholarly publishers: “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name, others for the sake of mere gain.” Is that quote accurate? If a well-annotated, image-rich universal library existed with a good search engine and other discovery mechanisms, I could quickly find the source material in full context.

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1 Comment on The New Yorker is as wrong about e-libraries as Martin Luther apparently was about paper books

  1. Garson O'Toole // November 4, 2007 at 12:42 am //

    The end of David Rothman’s interesting article contains an implicit challenge to find a more complete context for the Martin Luther quote that begins with “The multitude of books is a great evil.” The link within the article performs a Google Book search but it yields inadequate results. The search finds books of quotes with minimal context and books that only show small snippets.

    However, by reducing the amount of text in the search expression I was able to find a valuable match using Google Book Search. The quoted passage by Luther appears in a public domain text titled “The Table Talk of Martin Luther” by Martin Luther, William Hazlitt, and Alexander Chalmers published in 1857. The full text of the book is downloadable. The quote differs slightly from the one given by David Rothman because it has been created by a different translator.

    It is intriguing how much progress has been made in creating a powerful digital library. The Luther book was originally from Oxford University and was digitized January 9, 2007. Here is some more of the text adjacent to the quote:

    The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name; others for the sake of lucre and gain. The Bible is now buried under so many commentaries, that the text is nothing regarded. I could wish all my books were buried nine ells deep in the ground, by reason of the ill example they will give, every one seeking to imitate me in writing many books, with the hope of procuring fame. But Christ died not to favour our ambition and vain glory, but that his name might be glorified.

    Of course, it would be advantageous if the original context of the quote was easier to find as suggested by David Rothman. Also, annotations discussing the reliability of the 1857 translation would be nice.

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