Commentary # 1: Digitization and its discontents

This commentary will review the 2007 Anthony Grafton article, “Digitization and its discontents in the New Yorker on the issue of transferring books and other written material online as it is the case of Google Library Project.

The ambitious Google Books Library Project of building a comprehensive index of all books in the world has created controversies. While Grafton (2007) argues that ‘the project is nothing more than a flare of light in the still unexplored night sky of humanity’s recorded past’, Kelly (2006) affirms that technology of search will transform isolated books into the universal library of all human knowledge. I argue that even though, the project may be the most important contribution to spread the knowledge; it is fundamental to elevate the  critical, analytical  and research skills of learners. A book is a product unlike other products because of its role in promoting diversity and civilization.

Grafton (2007) offers a compendious history of library. He begins with a comparison of Google attempts throughout an efficient procedure for capturing and reproducing texts, with Ptolemy (AD 90) when he decided to gather together a comprehensive collection of Greek works, mainly for his own use. It was the origin of the most famous ancient library of Alexandria. Six hundred years later Eusebius devised a system of cross-references that enabled readers to find parallel passages in the four Gospels. He used the system with an organized group of secretaries and scribes to produce and sell parchment of bibles.

Continuing with his historical perspective, he argues that the printing revolution in the XV century, which transformed the work of librarian and readers made some impresarios of book technologies carried away and faced financial problems. Later, by the Renaissance times when the huge amount of books become overwhelming, they developed a systematic note-taking. And, from the eighteenth century libraries used a variety of indexing and cataloging systems. Due to the quickly multiplying of resources, a micro-photography appeared. But the films and reprint-based library never become fully comprehensive as well successful.

Taking into account the failure of microfilms, the digitization came up to cover a gap in the realm of libraries. However, in this point Grafton gets back to Google, Microsoft, and other companies in the digitization business and states that “the Internet will not bring us a universal library, much less an encyclopedic record of human experience. None of the firms now engaged in digitization projects claim that it will create anything of the kind.” While  O’Donell (1998) argues that the virtual libraries will be in a community where information is decentralized, and no longer dependent on a finite circle of publishers  with its limitation.

Grafton (2007) also discusses some problems Google Book Project library is facing  like the optical character recognition, which in its double process has some quirks, the possibilities that the scanner miss pages, or produce out of order or a bad quality of  the copy. He added the Google has no immediate plan to scan ancient books. In this concern  O’Donell (1998) asserts that before the relative stability of printing, texts were often disconcertingly labile and unreliable.

Economics issues are also stressed in Grafton’s (2007) comments. For instance, he mentioned that materials from the poorest societies may not attract companies that rely on subscriptions or on advertising for cash flow. In the other hand, he clearly identifies the danger of monopolization by the Google Library Project. Contrary, he acknowledges the philanthropic work of smaller project e.g. the Project Gutenberg, Million Books among others.

To conclude, I think the besides his humanistic approach, the strongest Grafton’s (2007) argument against the Google search engine is his compendious history of Library. Santaya (1905) asserted that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”  While Dertouzos (1997)  said in an interview in Scientific American that  a big mistake was done 300 years ago when we separated technology and humanism, “It’s time to put the two back together.”


Grafton, A. (2007). Digitization and its discontents. Retrieved from:

Kelly, Kevin (2006). Scan the book. Retrieved from:

O’Donnell, J. (1994). The Virtual Library; an idea whose times has passed”. Retrieved from:

O’Donnell, J. (1998). Avatars of the Word. From Papyrus to Cyberspace. The instability of the text. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. 44-49.

Massachuttes Institute of Technology. (2001). Retrieved from:

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