The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Text Endangered


The dictionary defines “text” as the original words of something written or printed as opposed to a translation, paraphrase or revision. According to this definition primary documents would constitute as text whereas the translation of a novel into Korean or Swedish would not. In that case, O’Donnell argues text today is highly unstable due to the changes in technology.

Text is endangered due to the way it is digitalized and organized. Rules of writing such as grammar and punctuation did not govern writing systems of the past. Instead “the ancients made do in a wilderness of irregular scratches on a page, and made do quite well.” (O’Donnell, 1998) Writing in the past was less formalized and structured which indicates that the purpose of writing was not for wide distribution but for personal use. This belief created a casual and utilitarian culture for writing.

People today may view such text as chaotic due to the absence of paragraphs and punctuations. But instead of appreciating the distinctiveness of the original text, people today impose their own system of writing by adding punctuations and revising the grammar to make the text fit into the current period. O’Donnell illustrates text found during the 20th century was very stable with appropriate formatting and editing, the attention to appearance was present as well. However, it was during the late 1900’s that “we have now returned to a time of instability marked by debate over means of presentation.” (O’Donnell, 1998) The vast options of representing and storing text are diluting the original work.

O’Donnell illustrates that “[t]o enter a text in a computer means to make choices. It is possible to make the simplest possible set of choices and to allow the text to take the form of a series of Roman alphabet characters, upper and lower case, delimited by carriage returns, tabs, and a handful of standard punctuation marks.” (O’Donnell, 1998) Such choices made by people today assigned to transfer information and ideas of the past will have a significant impact on how newly presented text will be understood. Before virtual libraries replace libraries it is important to consider just how fragile text is. Even the simple process of changing the font of the text can take the life and time out of the text.

Despite the implications associated with the digitalization of text, the concept of the virtual library is a step many libraries especially in the post secondary level are taking and planning towards. O’Donnell describes the “ ‘virtual library’ as a dream that many share” (O’Donnell, 1994) The public’s confidence in virtual libraries can be observed “in 1992, [when] public libraries throughout California suffered major budget cuts up to 65% forcing branches to layoff staff, reduce hours of operation, and eliminate new purchases. In some counties libraries closed down altogether when voters failed to approve taxes that would have supported them. In the same year, according to The Washington Post, the state suspended all construction plans for new university libraries in order to focus its attention and budget on ‘virtual libraries.’” (Roy, 1997) With this much focus and government support, soon print-based libraries will become museums or historical sites where tour guides announce through their loud speakers that people used to read, research and relax in such an institution.

One of the main benefits of virtual libraries is that it does increase access and availability because resources will be made available online anywhere. However, switching from print-based libraries to virtual libraries only replaces previous limitations with new restrictions. O’Donnell explains the problems surrounding accessibility in the representation of text by various word processing formats in that “[a]n abundance of word processing formats has generated another abundance of would-be standard formats. Recognition of these formats depends on users’ choices of hardware and software. If, for example, I need to get tax forms from the U.S. Treasury, I can find them on the World Wide Web and print them at home in minutes. But I must have previously acquired one of (at last count) four different ways to manage text (PDF, PCL, PostScript, or SGML) in order to get those forms at all.” (O’Donnell, 1998) Therefore, users with computers or software that is not compatible or up to date will be denied access. Thus, what seems to be progression is actually regression.

In addition to computer incompatibility, technologies are changing rapidly thus information is constantly being formatted and reformatted into the technology of the time. The transfer of text from one entity to another is a dangerous risk because the process threatens the survival of the original text. Similar to oral cultures as information is passed down from generation to generation details and meanings are altered and in today’s society each generation of technology is replacing the next generation at a much faster rate. Perhaps “our present plans to convert as much as possible of our print heritage to digits might, for the most part, be a waste of money…since, as reading loses favor… in one hundred years almost no one will read the literature–books and journals–from the past because it will be obsolete in the electronic medium. As a consequence.”(Seiler and Surprenant, 1991)

It is important to re-evaluate the process of managing and presenting text. In order to strengthen the quality of electronic resources and virtual libraries relationships between libraries, creators, publishers and aggregators of electronic resources need to be well established to reduce the loss of text in the process.


O’Donnell, J. (1998). Hyperlink: The instability of the text. Avatars of the word: Papyrus to cyberspace, Retrieved September 20, 2009, from

O’Donnell, James J. (1994) “The Virtual Library; An Idea Whose Time Has Passed.” Gateways, Gatekeepers, and Roles in the Information Omniverse: Proceedings of the Third Symposium. Eds. Ann Okerson and Dru Mogge. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries Office of Scientific and Academic Publishing. 19-32.

Roy, Michael V. (1997) “The Virtual Library: Rhetoric and Reality” © IT Journal On-Line: Spring 1997. Retrieved October 1, 2009, from

Seiler, Lauren, and Thomas Surprenant. (1991) “When We Get the Libraries We Want, Will We Want the Libraries We Get?” Wilson Library Bulletin. 29..157.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 6:55 pm }

As always I wonder who will eventually decide what books will be saved and in what format.

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