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“Postcard from the Volcano: The Research Library After Large-Scale Digitization” with Andrew Stauffer (CUNY Graduate Center, February 19, 2014)

In an age of mass digitization, the future of the print record may be at risk as digital copies become preferred to physical holdings in libraries. Andrew Stauffer, a professor in the English department at the University of Virginia and a member of the Executive Council of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship (NINES) project, visited the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative on February 19 and presented a talk called “Postcard from the Volcano: The Research Library After Large-Scale Digitization.” The talk was held at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan but was also streamed online and live tweeted by CUNY DHI staff members. The presentation highlighted what could be lost as the print record continues to be downsized in favor of digital copies. This discussion illustrates the need to look more critically at developing digital research methods to fully grasp the potential problems they present.

Dr. Stauffer’s talk focused on nineteenth century books, which occupy an interesting place in the world of mass digitization efforts. These books are out of copyright, often can be found in circulating library collections rather than special collections or in rare book rooms, and are not often checked out by researchers or students. Dr. Stauffer illustrated how books such as these are often being shipped off in large numbers to processing centers in order to be digitized for Google Books and made freely available online. He continued on to note that there is a perception that since there is a digital copy of that text available and accessible, there is less need for libraries to hold on to their copies of the same book, particularly if it has not been checked out in years. It is impossible for libraries to keep every book, and when librarians have to choose which books to remove from their collections, these sorts of free digital copies could influence their decision of whether or not to keep a particular text.

However, Dr. Stauffer points out that books are much more than their textual contents. He encourages people to think of books as physical interfaces and artifacts that contain a wealth of valuable information about many other things, such as the readers of the period in which they were published. To illustrate this, he showed a variety of examples of marginalia found in nineteenth century books from UVA’s circulating collections. While mass digitization has its advantages, Dr. Stauffer was emphasizing the importance of thinking about books as more than their text. While there may be a digital copy available, a copy in another library may have handwritten notes that could tell a researcher a great deal not only about the individual who made the annotations, but also could help contextualize that book in its social context. If individual copies with artifacts like this are consistently weeded out of library collections because they are available digitally, these records could be lost. In addition to marginalia, books can provide information about printing practices, the types of materials used in the production process, and other sorts of information to scholars.

While Dr. Stauffer is not advocating saving every book, as that is, of course, impossible, he is emphasizing the need to have conversations about these issues. He suggests scholars and librarians need to get involved in establishing guidelines to determine which texts to keep and which to weed out. Scholars in particular need to work towards advocating preservation of these rare materials, for as these disappear from shelves across research libraries; we are losing the rest of the physical interface of the book, which holds a wealth of information.

There was a vibrant discussion following the talk about many aspects of this dilemma. For one, while Dr. Stauffer focused on academic research libraries in this presentation, other libraries should be considered as well. Public libraries, in particular, likely have a great deal of these types of holdings that deserve a closer look by scholars. A major concern that was discussed was the fact that there is currently no system for cataloging marginalia such as the type illustrated in this talk. If scholars were able to preserve these books, how would they go about recording this information? Also, deciding on a set of guidelines as far as determining scholarly worth of some of these books is tricky. We don’t know what scholars in the future will want to study, so the guidelines may result in losing books considered to not be of sufficient scholarly value today, but which may, in time, be a wealth of material for future study. Finally, the issue of digital preservation was touched on. While many of these texts are now available digitally through Google Books, no one knows how long that service will last, or what could happen if these files were lost and if libraries have eliminated their holdings of an item that suddenly is no longer available digitally.

This situation presents an opportunity for digital humanists and other scholars to more critically examine some practices that are becoming normalized. As Jamie “Skye” Bianco (2012) points out: “Digital humanists must seriously question … our roles in the legitimization and institutionalization of digital media in the humanistic nodes of the academy … and not simply defend the legitimacy … of computational practices.” Digitization of rare and often fragile texts is valuable, but the implications for physical books need to be considered more seriously by scholars. Attention must be paid to the potential for what we could be losing by accepting one digital copy as a sufficient holding of a book. While a great deal of emphasis in digital humanities is placed on tools and the new possibilities for data analysis and research these tools provide, it is just as important to critique these tools and developing methods as the field continues to grow. In this instance, the future of the print record is something that is worth more detailed attention than it is currently receiving. Those in the digital humanities must examine why we are digitizing at such a rate, and what the implications of this trend are for the scholarly record.  We now have the ability and means for mass digitization, but this does not make the print record somehow redundant or obsolete. Wide acceptance of digitized copies serving as replacements for the physical should be more critically examined going forward for the benefit of both current and future scholars.

 

References:

Bianco, J.S. (2012) The Digital Humanities Which Is Not One. In M. Gold (Ed.), Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved from http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/9.

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