The Digital Revolution and the Scholar: Darnton’s View


To continue the discussion begun by our consideration of Ken Auletta’s Googled, we move to another recent work. Robert Darnton, who has opted out of the Google Book Settlement for Harvard, has faith that we can do better in terms of providing digital access. His The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future presents his vision and recommendations. As he asserts in a recent article for Publisher’s Weekly:

Today, however, we have the means to make that utopia a reality. In many societies, despite enormous inequalities, ordinary people not only read but have access to a huge quantity of reading matter through the Internet. I would not minimize the digital divide, which separates the computerized world from the rest, nor would I underestimate the importance of traditional books. But the future is digital. And I believe that if we can resolve the current challenges facing books in ways that favor ordinary citizens, we can create a digital republic of letters. Much of my book is devoted to this premise and can be summarized in two words: digitize and democratize.

Because versions of the chapters in Darnton’s The Case for Books have appeared elsewhere, those who do not have a copy of his book might find the following list of sources helpful. (The first two chapters are most recent).

Chapter One comes from “Google & the Future of Books” that appeared in The New York Review of Books, (February 12, 2009).

Chapter Two comes from “The Library in the New Age,” New York Review of Books, (June 12, 2008).

Chapter Four comes from “Lost and Found in Cyberspace,” Chronicle of Higher Education ( March 12, 1999).

Chapter Five comes from “The New Age of the Book,” New York Review of Books, (March 18, 1999).

Chapter Eight comes from “The Great Book Massacre,” New York Review of Books, (April 26, 2001).

Chapter Nine comes from “The Heresies of Bibliography,” New York Review of Books, (May 29, 2003).

Chapter Ten comes from “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” New York Review of Books, (December 21, 2000).

Chapter Eleven comes from “What Is the History of the Books? (widely reprinted), Daedalus (summer 1982): 65-83.

Darnton has been interviewed by a number of sources about this book. Rebecca Rego Barry” “Google v. Gutenberg: Robert Darnton’s new book on old books and e-books” appears in Fine Books & Collecting.


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28 Responses to “The Digital Revolution and the Scholar: Darnton’s View”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    [This comment is a revised version of an earlier draft.]

    Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books presents a series of learned and elegantly argued commentaries on the impact of the digital revolution on the scholar, and particularly on the institution that has traditionally supported scholarship: the library. The first chapter warns that Google Book Search may replicate the problem caused by the case of scholarly journals in the late twentieth century:

    Commercial publishers discovered that they could make a fortune by selling subscriptions to the journals. Once a university library subscribed, the students and professors came to expect an uninterrupted flow of issues. The price could be ratcheted up without causing cancellations, because the libraries paid for the subscriptions and the professors did not. Best of all, the professors provided free or nearly free labor. They wrote the articles, refereed submissions, and served on editorial boards, partly to spread knowledge in the Enlightenment fashion, but mainly to advance their own careers (9-10).

    Openness in scholarly projects—by using the Open Content Alliance, the Open Knowledge Commons, OpenCourseWare, the Internet Archive, and “openly amateur enterprises like Wikipedia”—may, he claims, help keep the promise of democratizing knowledge alive (10-11). But the danger that the promise of openness may disappear is ever-present:

    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. No invisible hand would intervene to correct the imbalance between the private and the public welfare (11).

    Google’s plans to digitize books would result in “a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information” (17). Though Darnton concedes that Google has no intention of misusing its power, he reminds us that its current leaders will one day retire, or the company will be sold. We are now at a “tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream may be as elusive as ever” (20).

    The second chapter, “The Information Landscape,” originally published in the NY Review of Books (June 8, 2008), insists that, far from being rendered obsolete, the book and the institution that protects it—the library—will increase in value as a consequence of the Google digitization project. If the university library is a temple, the internet is “open space.” The card catalogue has been replaced by the search engine. Though Google’s digitizing project promises to democratize knowledge, there are, Darnton warns, problems with its plans:

    Now, I speak as a Google enthusiast, although I worry about its monopolistic tendencies. I believe Google Book Search really will make book learning accessible on a new, worldwide scale, despite the great digital divide that separates the poor from the computerized. It also will open up possibilities for research involving vast quantities of data, which could never be mastered without digitization. As an example of what the future holds, I would cite the Electronic Enlightenment, a project sponsored by the Voltaire Foundation of Oxford. By digitizing the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson—about 200 volumes in superb, scholarly editions—it will, in effect, re-create the trans-Atlantic republic of letters from the eighteenth century. . . . But [the success of such projects] does not prove that Google Book Search, the largest undertaking of them all, will make research libraries obsolete. On the contrary, Google will make them more important than ever (33-34).

    Google’s cadre of engineers might benefit, Darnton argues, from the addition of a bibliographer, who could make searches more rigorous and more useful by identifying which edition of a text a viewer is reading. A bibliographer might also help strengthen the search algorithm, so that searches list texts in order of their scholarly integrity.

    Darnton is open to the vast possibilities GBS offers, but he rightly warns that we may miss—and perhaps have missed—an opportunity to preserve a digitized Republic of Letters that would, at least in theory, democratize learning.


    • Eleanor Shevlin Says:

      Thanks, Anna, for this very fine overview of chapters 1 and 2.

      Darnton’s point that in hindsight we “missed a great opportunity” in digitization in the 1990s is worth remembering as we eye the future. As he notes, in the 1990s the possibility of Congress and the Library of Congress working together and allied with other philanthropic institutions could have resulted in the creation of a National Digital library. Yet, as Darnton also asserts, it is too late for such an enterprise. As I mentioned in comments to the Auletta discussion, it would seem to behoove us to push our scholarly organizations, the ALA, and so forth to lobby for some national support for equitable electronic access to the resources that we allowed commercial vendors to create because we were inattentive. (Again, the timing here seems very poor given the economic situation, but these efforts do not happen overnight, and it would seem sensible to begin foundational work on mounting such a campaign in the US. Nor is this actually only a U.S. issue–many scholars in developing worlds are suffering far more than we from this digital divide.

      On a different note, Darnton’s comments about scholarly publishing brought to mind an article that appeared a decade ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education (June 25, 1999): “Scholarly Publishing in an Electronic Age: 8 Views of the Future.” Introduced by Peter Gilver, the executive director of the Association of American University Presses, the piece offers thoughts from the director of MIT Press, the editor-in-chief of Columbia University Press, director of the University of North Carolina Press, the director of computing and publishing at Princeton University Press, director of the University of Michigan Press, the director and the electronic-publishing manager of New York University Press, and the director of publishing technologies at the National Academy Press. (Gilver’s view counts as one of the eight perspectives offered).

      Not surprisingly, MIT was forward-thinking in 1999, developing process that would enable one to purchase “bits” of books (i.e., chapters) as well as the entire work. MIT saw its role evolving into new functions: “becoming more of what we never were: librarians, research guides, and purveyors of services, rather than merely producers and marketers of printed matter.”

      Similarly, University of North Carolina Press was experimenting with offering parts of as well as the whole book for both the traditional classroom and distance education. It had joined netLibrary and was investigating the creation of online documentary editions; it was also interested in reaching out to the general public. (Its author Kate Douglass Torey mentions Darnton’s writings on the topic in the New York Review of Books and the Chronicle).

      Columbia University Press was devising online areas to foster communication and collaboration among scholars, teachers, and policy makers that would “actually support and influence the scholarly process, not just disseminate its results.” Its author, Kate Wittenberg, also discussed the rich opportunities that online environments offer for better meeting the needs of diverse users and for fostering creative communication.

      Interestingly, Princeton University Press was taking a “restrained approach to electronic publishing”–save for marketing efforts using the Internet. A reson its author offers for this restraint is that Princeton publishes few journals and reference works. These two types of publications are where Princeton saw the most market for electronic publishing. Yet, its author, Charles Cressy, did note that the Press was “preserving electronic files of virtually all of the books” they produce in order to be ready for the day when delivery systems and market are ripe for them.

      Colin Day from the University of Michigan Press discusses the historical patterns of adapting to new technologies and the inertia of scholars trained in older methods. He notes when the need arises–often in this case “the need to manage very large bodies of information”–then scholars do turn to the new electronic environment to assist them in their efforts. He offers several examples of such scholars, all of whom are Univ. of Michigan Press, authors.

      Niko Pfund and Nancy Lin of New York University Press open their piece with a list of concerns about electronic publishing that accompanies university presses’ excitement. The list of worries is “long” and includes “finding viable economic models to sorting out copyright issues.” They also note that one must be prepared for constant change (using the death of the CD-Rom as an example) and remark that they prepare their editions in multiple formats. Perhaps most interesting given our discussions are their remarks about “economic inequities” among presses and how the lack of funds available to small and mid-size university presses significantly curtail their ability to experiment. To help address that problem, they are seeking to construct consortiums. These authors telling remark,

      The danger is that electronic initiatives may become centralized in the hands of the few, just as scientific-journal publishing has been consolidated into the hands of several large European corporations, which has led to rising costs and the literal, as well as intellectual, the impoverishment of many libraries’ book collections.

      While referencing the uncertainty surrounding the future, they close by pointing out one certainty: “commercial enterprises are looking at higher education as never before, keen on cashing in on a $600-billion market they perceive as ripe for the picking.

      The final perspective is offered by Michael Jensen, National Academy Press, who offers a variety of perspectives he brings to bear on this topic: as a writer, futurist, information entrepreneur, architect of hypertextual presentation, a seat-of-the pants economist, and a non-commercial publisher. He sees a potentially bright future for electronic publishing by university presses because of its promise of reducing costs. Specifically, it will enable, in his view, wide dissemination while eliminating the intermediaries involved in the distribution of print products.


      • Anna Battigelli Says:

        Thanks, Eleanor. These experiments in electronic publishing are necessary, and it’s helpful to hear these varied perspectives. I will write more about this in response to Darnton’s efforts to advance open access, both as President of AHA and as Director of Harvard Libraries (chapters 6 and 7 below).


      • Eleanor Shevlin Says:

        In keeping with this idea of experiment, Ohio University Press is offering four books in Victorian Studies for free.

        Here’s the rationale that they provide for this unusual move:

        Ohio University Press is pleased to make available electronic versions of these four books in Victorian studies at no cost to the reader. While it is our hope that as a result of reading the books in a downloadable format, readers will be inspired to buy the paper editions of the books, our real goal in providing these e-books to you is to increase your access to our books.

        Please let us know if you appreciate this effort. Ohio University Press, like all university presses, exists as a function of the scholarly publishing process. It is our mission to disseminate the fruits of research and creative activity. If this experiment in new platforms is successful and is used as a way to promote the ideas and arguments of our authors and to stimulate more debate and research on the topics they have investigated, we will strive to continue our commitment to this new reach into the scholarly dialogue.

        I applaud Ohio Universityy Press’s fairly bold, brave move here. I wonder if the hope that readers will purchase the books is a secondary goal. The first aim may well be to test the market for ebooks–and also to test how the market responds to the particular form in which they are offering their works electronically.


      • Anna Battigelli Says:

        Now that’s an interesting development! It would be great to have a publisher offering four eighteenth-century ebooks.


  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Please Note! In error I posted the wrong link for “Google & the Future of Books” that appeared in The New York Review of Books, (February 12, 2009). I have corrected my error. The link will now direct you to the essay on which Darnton bases chapter one of The Case for Books.


  3. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Chapters 3 “The Future of Libraries” and 4 “Lost and Found in Cyberspace” should be assigned reading for all graduate students and faculty in History or English. Chapter 3 outlines Harvard’s current plans for open access through the establishment of an Office for Scholarly Communication. That office will provide copies of scholarly articles by participating faculty. Additionally, an Open Collections Program is ongoing at Harvard to digitize material from its libraries. These collections are on fairly specific themes:

    Women Working, 1800-1930; Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930; Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics; Expeditions and Discoveries: Sponsored Exploration and Scientific Discovery in the Modern Age; and Islamic Heritage (51).

    These are very real projects that might help “realize the ideal of a republic of letters, which once seemed hopeless utopian” (58). They are also programs that can be built on collaboratively by other schools.

    Chapter 4 is a meditation on what electronic publication offers that traditional media can’t offer. Darnton identifies a personal problem:

    I have dozens of shoe boxes filled with index cards crying out to be transformed into a book–to many, in fact, to squeeze into a single book, too many even to get under control. That is why I contemplate the leap: I want to write an electronic book (61).

    Such a book can “contain many layers arranged in the shape of a pyramid” (61). Readers can read the top layer or delve into deeper layers if they desire “a supplementary essay or appendix” (62).

    One thing I like about this pyramid-like conception of electronic publication is that it might force us as scholars to pay particular attention to the lucidity and force of the top layer of our projects: our chief arguments. By focusing on the readable narratives at the top level of our project and channeling supporting documentation to lower layers, we might write stronger books and even expand our audience.


  4. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Again, many thanks, Anna.

    My own library is involved in digtizing some of its holdings to enhance access to its special collections, and this seems to be an excellent trend. Having interns and graduate assistants from the humanities (as well as other disciplines) assist in these efforts would seem to be a good way to reduce costs while offering excellent opportunities to students to gain valuable skills. It would also seem useful to involve faculty in discussions about the planning of these projects.

    As for Darnton’s shoe boxes filled with index cards, his long-standing plan to produce an ebook is welcome, but if the issue is more managing the information, then tools such as Zotero also offers an excellent solution.

    Ten years ago Darnton was also a pioneer in producing the first electronic article for the American Historical Review, based on his 1999 Presidential address: “An Early Information Society:
    News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris”

    From the Inroduction to the site

    Robert Darnton’s “An Early Information Society” is the first electronic article produced by the American Historical Review. It is an experiment in using the new electronic medium as a means of disseminating historical scholarship. The editors hope that in addition to producing an enhanced version of Darnton’s essay, this “e-article” will provide some useful examples of ways to present historical arguments and materials through electronic publication.

    This site contains an electronic version of the presidential address with links to a digitized map of Paris that includes cafés where police gathered information about political activities, police reports from those cafés, illustrations from the era, audio of versions of songs that conveyed political news (sung by French performer Hélène Delavault), texts of the song lyrics, and an essay by Darnton analyzing those songs. In addition, there is information about an online discussion of the address that the AHR will host March 13-27, 2000.


  5. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Chapters 6 and 7 document two experiments Darnton headed: one as President of AHA; the other as Harvard University’s Director of Libraries. Chapter 6 looks at Gutenberg-e, the AHA’s online project aimed at “revitalizing the monograph” and at helping beginning scholars publish electronically, with that publication counting toward tenure (79). Darnton includes the text of two documents: the Grant Proposal of 1997 and the Progress Report of 2002. Both help us see how such projects might be mapped out and, later, monitored. (18thConnect similarly provides their recent grant proposals on their website, which is helpful in informing scholars of the state and projected shape of the project.)

    Chapter 7 provides the brief motion read before Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences on behalf of open access. Here, too, having a specific and logically mapped out plan helps other institutions consider what they might do to promote open access.

    The candor and clear-headedness of these documents help us imagine a way forward.


  6. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Here is a link to Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard. A quick search of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences reveals that humanities scholars as well as those in the sciences have accepted Darnton’s call.

    Click here to hear a podcast of a recent interview with Darnton on the Open Access policy that Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted unanimously to accept in October 2008. The interview was conducted by JISC’s Rebecca O’Brian (via Skype) and published on the JISC website. JISC is the UK body that we mentioned in the Summary of the EC/ASECS roundtable post (in discussing differences in US access to ECCO, Burney, and other similar resources and access in the UK). This group promotes the use of digital technology in the education.


    • Anna Battigelli Says:

      Harvard’s Digital Access to Scholarship site is well designed. Isn’t the next step for professional organizations like MLA and AHA to begin thinking about how to integrate their professional bibliographical sites with open access sites? Are they doing this? This would seem to me a priority.


  7. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    The MLA does have a a Committee on Information Technology (Laura Mandell is one of its members). The list of available reports does not suggest that the committee has addressed open access–but it may well be in the process of doing so:

    Statement on Publication in Electronic Journals

    Guidelines for Evaluating Work with Digital Media in the Modern Languages

    Guidelines for Institutional Support of and Access to IT for Faculty Members and Students

    The AAUP Statement on Distance Education: Special Considerations for Language and Literature

    Minimal Guidelines for Authors of Web Pages

    Computer-Related Repetitive Strain Injuries: An Advisory

    Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion: A Workshop for Evaluators and Candidates


  8. Anna Battigelli Says:

    These reports seem to be about six years old. It would be great to learn more about what this committee is working on now.


  9. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Yes, the reports are fairly old. The commitee may well be working on some of the issues we are discussing, and it would be good to know. The swiftness with which technology is altering our scholarly landscape calls for accelerated attention, but at the same time thoughtful plans can take a while to construct and progress through the proper chanels.

    I will write the committee chair.


  10. Sunday’s NPR Soundprint: Who Needs Libraries? « Early Modern Online Bibliography Says:

    […] Who Needs Libraries? By Eleanor Shevlin Given our ongoing discussion of Darnton’s The Case for Books and the post Anna initiated today on the Google Book Amended Settlement, this Sunday’s […]


  11. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Chapter 8, “A Paean to Paper,” is a detailed review of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold (Random House, 2001), the explosive volume that exposed librarians’ misguided attempts to “preserve” books and newspapers by first replacing paper copies with microfilm copies, then disposing of the originals.

    Baker’s volume highlights the librarian’s dilemma: on the one hand, they are responsible for preserving texts; on the other hand, that task soon causes libraries to run out of space. The presumed solution—digitization—can inspire enthusiasm, but that enthusiasm should not lead to a purging of paper texts, which cannot be replaced adequately by microfilm.

    Darnton closes the chapter by reinforcing Baker’s four suggestions:

    1) Libraries receiving public funding should disclose their discard lists monthly on a Web site, so that the public can monitor their decisions;

    2) the Library of Congress should find space to store material they receive but select not to place on site, or designate another institution to serve as a national repository;

    3) libraries should save the country’s newspapers in bound form;

    4) the NEH should abolish the U.S. Newspaper Program and the Brittle Books Program, or require that digitzation projects be non-destructive.


  12. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    I remembering reading Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold in one sitting, so fascinated was I with (and horrified by) the tale he told. And although I recognized his work was more impassioned than balanced, I still essentially sided with his view on the whole.

    Understandably, his work generated a number of responses from librarians and archivists who felt compelled to respond to his criticisms and attack. Most of the responses were highly defensive (for a summary of this defensiveness, see Lincoln Cushing’s review of Richard Cox’s Vandals in the Stacks? A Response to Nicholson Baker’s Assault on Libraries; see also Barbara Quint’s “Don’t Burn Books! Burn Librarians!!
    A Review of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper
    ). One might also see an early review by Richard Cox, a fellow of the Society of American Archivists, that predates his book-length work. (in this response Cox mentions Darnton’s “The Great Book Massacre”).

    One of the key issues that arise in these discussions is the feasibility of preserving a copy of every single newspaper title (let alone every edition of a given title)—especially given the costs involved and the realities of space. Another issue that cropped up is the need to distinguish between books and newspapers. (Also, some have pointed out a difference between archivists (whose mission is to preserve) and librarians (whose mission, in some accounts, is to preserve for use/access foremost).

    On a different note, the Library of Congress has been creating additional storage. Evidently addressing the need for more off-site storage was one of James Billington’s early concerns when he became the director of the LC in 1987. A press release announcing the recent completion of more storage details some of this history.


  13. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Darnton’s ninth and tenth chapters* trace two opposite trends within literary studies. “The Importance of Being Bibliographical” reviews the shift in bibliography “from fine-grained analysis of individual books to the study of the London book trade as a whole” (145). When, beginning in the 1890s, Sir Walter Greg and R.B. McKerrow codified what was then called “the new bibliography,” they stressed the chain of production that resulted in the printed book. For them, the unit of analysis was the individual book.

    About eighty years later, Donald F. McKenzie both disrupted and energized bibliography by insisting that “the output of the entire shop” should serve as the unit of analysis. McKenzie’s “new” new bibliography stressed the principle of concurrent production: the commercial pressures on a print shop to produce a variety of books simultaneously required using whichever press happened to be free. His interest in “the sociology of texts” naturally linked Anglo-American bibliography to French “histoire du livre.”

    While the “new” new bibliography was expanding its scope, now taking into account the entire shop as the unit of analysis, the practice of reading was, following Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton’s seminal article, “ ‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read his Livy,” (Past & Present 129 (199), 31-78), perhaps necessarily narrowing its scope to focus on the individual reader.

    The largest treatment of the relatively recent history of reading is Kevin Sharpe’s brilliant Reading Revolutions: the Politics of Reading in Early Modern England. Were William Drake’s commonplace books evidence for, as Sharpe suggests, a “fully Machiavellian theory,” an individual’s “scripting” of a “new intellectual and political culture”? Or did they reflect, as Darnton suggests “nothing more than a disenchanted attitude toward politics as power struggles,” written by an Englishman living on the Continent and thus both distanced from and disenchanted by the English Civil Wars (166)? Darnton and Sharpe disagree on the role of theory in such inquiries, and both their arguments should be heeded. Both agree, however, that “by selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience” (169). That is, the history of reading is now indispensable in understanding the history of mentalities.

    The developments Darnton identifies–whether McKenzie’s concept of concurrent publication or Kevin Sharpe’s treatment of segmental (as opposed to sequential) reading–have enormous influence on our sense of history, including, of course, the history of literature. Like the best reviews, Darnton’s reviews are always more than reviews. They identify major developments in the disciplines of History and Literature and force us to see their overlapping interests, even as they insist on rigorous disciplinary integrity.

    * “The Importance of Being Bibliographical” originally appeared in 2003 as “The Heresies of Bibliography” (New York Review of Books, 29 May 2003, 43-45; “The Mysteries of Reading” originally appeared in 2000 as “Extraordinary Commonplaces” (New York Review of Books, 21 Dec. 2000, 82-87).


  14. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Darnton’s well known final chapter, “What is the History of Books?,” has been frequently reprinted and is a staple of book history courses. It originally appeared in Daedalus (Summer 1982), 65-83. A sequel, “‘What Is the History of Books?’ Revisited,” appeared in Modern Intellectual History 4 (2007), 495-508. Darnton retains the original essay but omits footnotes.

    For the purposes of this blog, Darnton’s claim that “books belong to circuits of communication that operate in consistent patterns, however complex they may be” raises interesting questions regarding electronic resources (206). What additional “patterns” to such circuits of communication evolve from digitizing texts? Of the roles Darnton discusses–authors, publishers, printers, shippers, booksellers, readers–the one that may need most probing in the digital age is “readers.” What happens to the experience of reading when the “book” is no longer a material object held in one’s hands but words on a screen to be accessed through a keyboard? Do we read digital texts differently than we read books? If a “shift from intensive to extensive reading coincided with a desacralization of the printed word” at the end of the eighteenth century, when readers suddenly “raced through all kinds of material, seeking amusement rather than edification,” what shifts result from the new proliferation of texts in cyberspace (203)?


  15. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Although researchers and others have been exploring whether we read texts produced on paper differently from those read on screen, the conclusions do not seem to be definitive yet. LCD monitors cause less eye fatigue than the bulkier CRT monitors (and as I write this, I realize that I began reading far more on screen once I switched to a larger LCD monitor. I should mention that my eyes were permanently weakened by the rudimentary computer screen I used in a job from 1979 to 1982. Later CRT screens were improved and did not compound damage). Screen reading is also affected by the typeface used. Some studies conclude that reading on screen takes more time than reading printed material.

    Although PDF design and capabilities are changing, so many PDFs are still not designed for reading online but instead meant to be printed in order to read. If I wish to read a text from the PDFs I save from ECCO, EEBO, and Burney, I almost always print the text. However, if I am working with the text for other purposes, I remain in the PDF, on-screen environment.

    Reading newspapers and the like (as opposed to reading, say, a novel) seem more conducive to online reading. (Although the contents are still delivered on a screen, reading on a Kindle or Sony reader seems different from reading material on websites; these readers have taken care to develop features that promote immersive reading.) Those offering advice for writing and designing for website publication stress the need for shorter copy, bullet points, less-text heavy space, and if one’s reading diet consisted primarily of such material, I would think reading longer, more complex works could be challenging.

    The occasion for Darnton’s 2007 revisiting of his “What Is the History of Books?” article (available through Harvard’s Digital Access) was a symposium at the 2005 Material Cultures conferences at the University of Edinburgh. Conference organizer Bill Bell provides the introduction, “What Was the History of the Book,” to the print version of the symposium, published in Modern Intellectual History, 4.3; in addition to Bell’s and Darnton’s essay, the symposium also featured essays by Roger Chartier (“The Order of Books Revisited”), Peter Burke (“A Social History of Knowledge Revisited”), and David D. Hall’s “What Was the History of the Book: A Response”). One of the issues Darnton stresses in his is the way paper affected reader reception:

    a peculiar paper consciousness existed in early modern Europe. … in earlier times people looked at the material substratum of books, not merely at their verbal message. Readers discussed the degrees of whiteness, the texture, and the elasticity
    of paper. They employed a rich esthetic vocabulary to describe its qualities, much as they do for wine today. (498)

    Darnton bases his discussion on not just the attention that printers and publishers paid to paper, but also the frequency with which paper surfaces as a marketing point in advertisements as well as (not stated but implied) readers’ comments.

    Today we see marketers of the Sony e-reader making similar claims about its readers’ “paper-like” look and technological advances in simulating “ordinary ink” in their marketing materials (click the “technology” tab):

    Experience the future of reading via an astonishing paper-like display thanks to E Ink® Vizplex™ screen technology. Featuring a black and white, ink-on-paper look fused with a high-resolution display, Reader digital books can be easily read in virtually any light including direct sunlight. You can also adjust the text for a more enjoyable reading experience.

    Designed to imitate the appearance of ordinary ink on paper, electronic ink reflects light like ordinary paper and can hold both text and images. In addition to a natural paper-like reading experience, electronic paper displays boast ultra-low power consumption. Sony Reader digital books use Vizplex, which is the latest generation of E Ink’s microencapsulated ink imaging film.

    For a recent comparison between the Sony’s e-reader and Amazon’s Kindle, see this piece in PC World‘s November 2009 issue or this blog entry (again from PC World).


  16. The Case for Books on NPR (Monday, Nov. 23rd) « Early Modern Online Bibliography Says:

    […] Anna has provided a chapter-by-chapter synopsis in series of comments to a previous emob The Digital Revolution and the Scholar: Darnton’s View post. […]


  17. Anna Battigelli Says:

    I wish we had e-readers for scholarly books. Now that would be helpful.


  18. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    NetLibrary offers perhaps a start. The roots of NetLibrary grew out of the Ohio College Library Center (OCLC), founded in 1967 to share information and resources electronically across Ohio college and university libraries. In 1977 the OCLC expanded beyond Ohio History of OCLC. Here’s more information about NetLibrary from its website:

    What is NetLibrary?
    eContent isn’t new to libraries. What is new is the ever-widening array of choices and eResources available through the Web. As formats, languages and technologies multiply, so does the challenge to manage and deliver quality content — in ways that will work both today and tomorrow.

    NetLibrary meets that challenge as the most versatile eContent provider for libraries and publishers today. It supports the most content from leading publishers, the most types of media — including eBooks and eAudiobooks — the widest audience of users and the most types of libraries. NetLibrary takes you far beyond the world of eBooks to provide a flexible and stable eContent platform that is positioned for continual rapid content growth.

    History of quality and content
    NetLibrary launched the eBook category and is fast growing to become the eContent provider of choice for academic, community college, public and many other libraries. It offers easy-to-use functionality with access to multiple formats and best-selling titles from the world’s leading publishers.

    As OCLC’s eContent division, NetLibrary represents a unique dual heritage: a trusted partner for librarians and publishers, with a firm commitment to technological innovation on behalf of end-users. NetLibrary combines the time-honored traditions of the library system with the latest in electronic publishing and content delivery.

    More subjects, more languages, faster search
    NetLibrary’s eContent catalog never stops growing. More than 200,000 titles and hundreds of global publishers already represent a comprehensive inventory of trade, reference and STM content. But there are even more types of content coming — in more subjects and more languages. And it’s becoming faster to search all that new content seamlessly across multiple formats.

    We have a subscription to NetLibrary at WCU. Some academic titles offered by NetLibrary include William Beatty Warner’s Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, Mary Burke’s Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain, and Michael O’Neill’s Literature of the Romantic Period : A Bibliographical Guide. Interestingly, it *seems* as if most of the scholarly works I’ve used date from the late 199os or early 2000s (to emphasize–this is an unscientific observation, one I have not thoroughly investigated). This concentration in these years might just be coincidence, but I wonder if there was a push to make scholarly monographs available in these years, but the market for them was not yet there. And/or perhaps availability has to do with a publisher’s and/or author’s attitudes towards digital rights.

    In using NetLibrary one “checks out a book”, and one also can annotate electronically the copy and more. I have always used these books online on my computer and not on a separate reader.


  19. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    The following example of a different marriage between technology and the book, one might enjoy this YouTube video, Going West from the New Zealand Book Council (I found this posted on the SHARP-L listserv).

    Another interesting post on today on SHARP-L came from James Moses announcing the publication of The Survey of Higher Education Faculty: Use of Academic Library Special
    . What was interesting about the post is Moses’s mention that the survey found that those academics describing themselves as “left of liberal” were the biggest users of special collections, while those describing themselves as “right of conservative” had not used such collections in three years.


  20. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Yes, it’s really something! I also thought it draws attention to the physical attributes of print by using technology to bring those features “to life.”


  21. » e-updating Sarah Werner Says:

    […] new book, you can access many of its constituent parts in their earlier versions via the handy list at Early Modern Online Bibliography. I should pause, too, to say that there are lost of good […]


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