7.0163 Further R: Libraries of the Future (1/45)

Tue, 7 Sep 1993 19:28:19 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 7, No. 0163. Tuesday, 7 Sep 1993.

Date: Tue, 7 Sep 1993 10:51 EDT
From: John Lavagnino <LAV@BINAH.CC.BRANDEIS.EDU>
Subject: Re: Libraries of the Future

The Libraries of the Future issue of Representations (Spring 1993) has
some interesting reading, though it all adds up to a strange package in
some ways. Geoffrey Nunberg's essay ``The Places of Books in the Age of
Electronic Reproduction'' is the first article in the issue and is
certainly the most general consideration of electronic texts that it
contains, but its conclusions seem dubious to me. Its claim is that, by
virtue of the limitations of print, printed texts can play a role in the
cultural functions of ordering and selection that electronic texts can
never fill---precisely because they have no physical limitations.

The most astonishing part of his argument is this: his observation that
great changes in the economic and legal workings of publishing will be
needed if we're to have big electronic libraries available over
wide-area networks---which seems true enough---is followed by the calm
statement that he'll simply assume that all this will happen, and will
go on to discuss electronic libraries with no reference to those changes
whatsoever. This is an amazing thing to read in Representations, which
is known for printing articles that try to bring exactly those economic
and legal questions into literary and cultural studies; and Jane C.
Ginsburg's fine article on copyright is right there in the same issue to
point out the importance of the legal questions.

What he's left with to base an argument on is the considerable amount of
work that's been done on the history of literacy, and the small amount
of work on electronic textuality (which in any case he doesn't refer to
much). And what happens is something that you see a lot in these
discussions: for all its scholarship and theoretical baggage, eventually
everything is based on the author's limited experiences. You've heard
people argue that electronic texts are intrinsically unstable who were
clearly thinking mainly about that time WordPerfect trashed their file;
what's behind this article is the alarmed observation: I'm on Linguist
and there's already too much traffic! What will this come to in the
future? That the future might offer different ways of sorting your
electronic mail (to mention only the most mundane answer to this
question) doesn't come up.

But the article does say a lot of interesting things along the way, and
is worth looking at for those things. And don't skip the introduction
to the issue (by its editors, R. Howard Bloch and Carla Hesse): it culls
a lot of intelligent points from the rather odd collection of articles
that form this issue.

John Lavagnino
Department of English and American Literature, Brandeis University