Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Digitizing our World, One Book at a Time

Computerworld has an article this week about the University of California's agreement with Google to digitize the books in their libraries. The article is not a commentary, but a very straight-forward look at the contract between these two massive institutions - and they include a pdf of the contract itself. I won't lie to you - fascinating, this contract ain't.

But the tone is rather amazing - of the article and the contract. It's all cut-and-dry business as usual. There is no sentimental looks at writing, and sweating and slaving over the creation of these books, the ideas within these books. There's no romanticizing the excitement of finding books on shelves that are fascinating, of just scanning shelves for more, for books you've never heard of, for subject areas you wouldn't dare ask about as you know too little, but which really do interest you. I love the library, and I love books, and I rarely leave the Boston Public Library empty-handed. With my latest trip, I walked off with two books on Tennessee Williams - who saw that coming? I was looking for Armies of the Night by that old blowhard, Norman Mailer!

So back to the article and the digitizing - 'tis business. And some would argue that I could peruse "shelves," albeit virtual shelves, just as easily once Google creates and makes available its massive online library. But I return to my concern in putting books online - does it cheapen their value to make them virtual? Again, this isn't elitism. When something is on screen in front of you, it's less tangible inherently, it's less precious. You don't have that respect for the work like you do with a book - even if it's merely about presentation. A book sharing a screen with videogames, celebrity websites, endless and largely useless stores, and constant email spam is going to depreciate in value, and I don't care how used to screens the next generation is (mind you, I'm only 30, people), the venue lessens the thing itself.

If you go see a play in an old theatre, you hush up when it starts, and you pay attention - at least at first - to what's being said. When you see a play at an outdoor theatre, you might be distracted by the weather, and more likely to look around at other attendees. You're on the grass, where usually you might be having a picnic or lazing about, reading a book. It's casual, so you're likely to be a bit less respectful to the actors on stage.

When you can find a 1893 book while sitting in your underwear at home with a mallomar stuck to your table and your mom on the phone, and you're screaming at the dog not to go in the house, how respectful will you be of that 1893 book? Will you stop, slowly open it, take in the pages, the stray marks in it, the wear and tear, or will you view it quickly as a mere oddity and then shut the window? Will you become distracting by an IM blinking at the bottom of that same screen?

I don't want these books to fall apart from too much handling. But book production adds to a book itself, so to the people who think I'm clinging to a sinking ship, may I suggest you are dismissing an element of reading that might be only noted unconciously, but in fact increases one's enjoyment of reading, and publishing for that matter. My authors feel a thrill when they see a cover, get a proof of the jacket, and certainly when the bound book arrives. Telling them their book has gone live online would not achieve that sense of achievement, and could therefore lessen their motivation and the amount of work they put into their manuscript. And for that, we'd all suffer.

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