Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On mass digitization

I love reading about the perils of mass digitization. The same things that were said about the OPAC, computers in general, and (a little before my time), the printing press.

What will technology bring? It's too new! Too untried! And most of all - what will happen to my job?

What brought this on? A recent tirade I heard about Google cutting the librarian out of the process. They're doing everything! There's no librarian doing the selection!

It does seem that there were many librarians in the selection process, over the course of many years. These huge academic libraries didn't build themselves. While not everything may be as useful as when it was selected, it may well be useful in a different way.

What's missing is the intermediation - the librarian as middleman. There's something lost here, mostly in the cataloging process - but cataloging as we know it is broken. Of course, tagging isn't all that healthy itself, but at least it doesn't rely on antiquated vocabularies and concepts. The semantic web may still be in our future; I'm looking forward to Google (or the next guys) distilling it al into a giant thesaurus.

It may be the fruits of reading way too much science fiction in my youth, but what's wrong with all the books being online? People complained about Project Gutenburg (maybe) having inaccurate keyboarding, now they have the page image (with the stray thumb). Now they complain about the thumb - the same people who study typos in old texts to determine the pagination and foliation of rare editions.

Mistakes have their uses, too.

I'll be the first person to agree that a full text search of Othello doesn't tell you it's about jealousy. On the other hand, Shakespeare didn't call Hamlet the Melancholy Dane, we stuck that label on him. Is he really the Schizo dane, or the Teenage Dane, or the Ironic Dane?

So let us not stick our labels on for eternity. This is a new age of scholarship, where you don't have to have a Columbia ID to see the actual text, where the ivory tower casts a fainter shadow, and and fresh eyes are welcome.

Yeh, we were going to do all this ourselves. Eventually, when we had the time and the money.

We still can, when we have the time and the money, and do it our way.


So stop kvetching and let's do what we do best - intellectual access. It's what we've always done, in theory, at least. We help people find information.

We have a few million books to work on, plus the whole web. That should keep us busy for a while. So we might have to do things differently. Well, we don't type catalog cards anymore, and we got over it (at least, most of us).

Meanwhile, no censors, no closed stacks, no geographic limits (though there are still economic ones).

So what's so bad about Google Books? It's a gift! Open it up and enjoy!

No comments: