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Future Reading : Digitization and its Discontents

I read an article by Anthony Grafton in the November 5, 2007 issue of the New Yorker, titled "Future Reading: Digitization and its Discontents." Essentially the article is about the digitization of books and related material by Google and other organizations. What I liked best about the article was his discussion of the incompleteness of the project. Grafton discusses the process of choosing what is going to be digitized. Material not currently digitized is material from poor countries, material that is out of print but in still under copyright, rare and delicate materials and archival material. There are no plans to include these items. Instead of being the seamless cohesive fabric of the recorded knowledge of humanity, Grafton points out the patchwork quality of this vast complicated quilt.

For me this notion harkens back to the point in recent history when “rogue” scholars pointed out that there were and are other histories and philosophical thought that existed simultaneously as Western thought. When teachers don’t present this side to students, gaping holes in the history of humanity are allowed to exist. Somewhere around the 70’s I noticed weak attempts were made to fill these holes. In regards to Google’s immense undertaking, I wonder how the other printed words of less politically powerful cultures will be included in this rich fabric. Will the holes be allowed to exist and why?

I also like Grafton’s intro where he tells the story of how Alfred Kazin, author of On Native Grounds, used the great Humanities and Social Sciences Library of NYPL as inspiration to write. With great finesse, Grafton finishes off where he began, walking between the great symbols of Patience and Fortitude. It was nice to read something so positive yet bittersweet about our wonderful institution as we all watch ourselves morph into something unknown. I wonder if in the end we will be able to deliver the service Grafton so eloquently alludes to.


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