- Published on Amazon.com
There are several heroes in this book, but only one villain. The villain is, of course, Google, with its plan to digitize millions of books from research libraries and to make them available on the web to the public, for a profit. Google was challenged in court by a group of authors and publishers for alleged breach of copyright. For Robert Darnton, who expressed his views in numerous articles published by the NYRB and other journals, market forces cannot be trusted to operate for the public good. Looking back over the course of digitization from the 1990s, he sees a great missed opportunity: "we could have created a National Digital Library, the twenty-first century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria." Instead, "we are allowing a question of public policy--the control of access to information--to be determined by private lawsuit."
Turning to the heroes of the book, the first character we meet is a fictitious one, who appears at various junctures in the text. Marian the Librarian, as she is called, answers queries about her job by explaining that librarianship "is all about money and power". She lives in a dangerous world of CIA plots to take all newspapers out of libraries, of books baking in chemical solutions to prevent their pages from turning into crumbs, and of civil lawsuits such as the Google Book Search case brought to the district court for the Southern District of New York.
The case against Google's potential abuse of monopoly power is especially strong because, as people familiar with scientific publishing certainly know, it has happened before. Commercial publishers discovered they could ratchet up the subscription price of professional journals without causing cancellations, because once a university library subscribed, the students and the professors came to expect an uninterrupted flow of issues. This has resulted in the skyrocketing cost of serials, with the Journal of Comparative Neurology claiming the hefty price of $25,910 for a year's subscription. As a consequence, libraries that used to spend 50 percent of their acquisitions budget on monographes now spend 25 percent or less. University presses, which depend on sales to libraries, cannot cover their costs by publishing monographs. And young scholars who depend on publishing to advance their careers are now in danger of perishing.
For the author, lending his voice to Marian the Librarian, "To digitize collections and sell the product in ways that fail to guarantee wide access would be to repeat the mistake that was made when publishers exploited the market for scholarly journals, but on a much greater scale, for it would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere."
The second hero of the book is Robert Darnton himself as a professional historian who made pioneering contributions to the history of books. Let's call him Bob the Historian. As he defines his field of inquiry, the purpose of the history of books "is to understand how ideas were transmitted through print and how exposure to the printed word affected the thoughts and behavior of mankind during the last five hundred years". Initially, the problems took the form of concrete questions in unrelated branches of scholarship: What were Shakespeare's original texts? What caused the French Revolution? What is the connection between culture and social stratification? By asking new questions, using new methods and tapping new sources, the history of books turned into an exciting and thriving discipline, akin in its ambition and span to the history of science or the sociology of knowledge.
Bob the Historian believes libraries should preserve as much printed material and other media as possible. He thinks that "future scholars may learn a lot from studying our harlequin novels or computer manuals or telephone books." As his own research has shown, "almanacs and chapbooks were the most popular kind of printed matter in early modern Europe--so popular, in fact, that libraries did not deign to collect them." Likewise, commonplace books where people copied valuable quotes and remarks are sites to be mined for information about how people thought in a culture based on different assumptions from our own.
Bob the Historian's passion fort the archive goes beyond the printed material. He notes that we have lost 80 percent of all silent films and 50 percent of all films made before World War II. And he refers to ongoing projects at Harvard to archive email exchanges and web content for future generations to study. His plea for conservation is fueled by his belief in the social role of the historian: "Any attempt to see into the future while struggling with problems of the present should be informed by studying the past". Although the study of history does not afford lessons that can be directly applied to present circumstances, immersions into the past can provide a useful perspective on current and future events.
The last hero of the book is the same author in a different capacity: as a lover of books, bewitched by their texture and smell. Robbie Bookworm, if we dare call him so, recalls with emotion his first visit as a freshman to the rare books library at Harvard and his discovery of marginalia annotations of Emerson by Melville. Digitized images on a computer screen will always fail to capture crucial aspects of a book. "When I read an old book, I hold its pages up to the light and often find among the fibers of the paper little circles made by drops from the hand of the vatman as he made the sheet--or bits of shirts and petticoats that failed to be grounded up adequately during the preparation of the pulp." And to escape the vagaries of the present, there is always the temptation "to retire to a rare-book room and count watermarks".