Digital and Print: Living in a World of “Both/And”

The following is a guest post by Ellen O’Donnell, Technical Writer, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, who recently spent a year on detail in OSI.

After a strange winter in Washington, D.C., of no snow and warm temperatures, and a strange spring of early blossoms and drought, I woke up to something rare–a rainy, cool Saturday.

“Great,” I thought.  “We need the rain, and I can catch up on some unpacking”–including 20 boxes of books I had just moved into my new home.

I looked forward to seeing those old “friends” as I unpacked them, but not to tough decisions that awaited me.  My shelf and storage spaces are limited, and I know I won’t read most of these books again.  But I have found it hard to take well-meaning suggestions, such as donating them, recycling them, or making digital images of ones I’d like to remember.

Michael Suarez

What is the particular power that printed books have over us, and why? Can a digital version really substitute?

Michael Suarez, S.J., D.Phil., director of the Rare Book School, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, spoke to such concerns in a lecture on April 19 at the National Library of Medicine, “The Future for Books in a Digital Age.”  Among his other hats, Suarez is also Professor of English and Honorary Curator of Special Collections at Virginia, editor-in-chief of Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, co-editor of The Oxford Companion to the Book, and a Jesuit priest.

“The digital world is here,” said Suarez.  He noted that it is changing the shape of human inquiry, of the structures of human knowledge, and of the academy.  It can promote literacy, reading, and imagination.  It gives us fantastic research tools and access, and it’s convenient.  All of these are good things.

But, he added, while we are busy celebrating the digital domain, are we also being mindful of what we have lost?  This, too, is important–“for balance, and so that we can drive the tools we use, rather than those tools driving us.”

We can start by thinking about what a similacrum (or representation) is, and what it is not.  When color slide film came into wide use, changing how art history was taught, a ‘color slide controversy’ arose.  People worried that the simulacrum would gain primacy and become the work of art in students’ minds, especially if they never spent time with originals.  Not only would they miss out on impacts related to a work’s context and physical aspects (such as its true size, colors, and textures), but the new technology could change perception itself.

“Losing the artifactuality of the artifact matters,” Suarez said. “It matters in books as well. An image is not the book.”

He sees a codex book (i.e, one produced in the modern, bound format) as many things, including a transformation of a manuscript; a complex object laced with signs and codes, e.g., linguistic and cultural; “a coalescence of human intention”; and an artifact “made by communities of people and connected to meaning.”

We experience, for example, a book’s paper, type, bindings, and illustrations; variations among copies, editions, and interpretations; handwritten notes.  We give attention to where it came from—including, perhaps, the hands of someone important to us. Such things “are deeply meaningful and deeply human,” Suarez said, and are a part of literacy.  Our books in our own environment can become “totems” full of power and meaning.  “If we lose these things,” Suarez said, “it is to our impoverishment.  We are left with a horizon of dislocation and absence.”

Velocity of access is highly prized in the digital world.  But Suarez wonders what that velocity does to us, and how it affects sustained engagement with beautiful and important works of text or art.  If, through the power of the word search, searching becomes conflated with researching, does every book and corpus then become “an infinitely shuffleable deck of cards–a kind of never-ending subject index?” Hypertext and hyperlinks call us on many interesting side trips, but what does that do to our original focus?

The effects, at least as he has observed them in his students and himself, can include negative ones–e.g., upon the quality of attention, comprehension, performance, and scholarship.  This is an area that is being researched, as by Dr. Maryanne Wolf at Tufts University.

Yet Suarez is also “delighted” by the advent of the digital world, where he spends many of his working hours producing robust content with extensive metadata for a massive digital-humanities project: “I believe that we are way beyond the idea of either/or. We need to live in a world of both/and. The digital world is different from that of print, not better or worse.  I want both.”  Digital works should be preserved with the same care as a first or rare edition, he said, and while marketplace influences on the production of text are as real as ever, printed books are not going away.

T.S. Eliot wrote in 1934, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”  Suarez believes that human desire will remain not only for information, but for knowledge, and the unique experiences that come from engagement of the human mind and heart with printed books.


One Comment

  1. Louisa Trott
    May 11, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting” in his book “Illuminations”.
    The Financial Times used the title of Benjamin’s essay for this article last year … love those bookshelves!

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