Commentary 1 – Digitization and its Discontents

This commentary is based on Grafton’s article FUTURE READING:“Digitization and its discontents” as referenced below. Grafton begins by describing Google’s aim to “build a comprehensive index of all books in the world …..some which envision a universal archive providing a basis for a total history of the human race.” The author comments that “the rush to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical moments in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store and retrieve information efficiently.” The author then reviews past historical examples where libraries developed varied procedures in which to capture and reproduce text as they saw fit. In this opening statement, it appears that Grafton is questioning whether such an overload of information is currently a modern problem or issue? As in historical times, much information was created and gathered yet had to be stored and retrieved efficiently with libraries of the past and with of course currently Google. Why is there more of a focus on the current activities of Google and the digitization of books and documents as compared to the past? This may be explained by more recent technologies such as the Internet and of copyright issues.

Google currently scans books which are out of copyright and provides full text viewing and at the same scans copyright protected materials providing only small text samples for viewing. This process creates issues for the author provided s/he does not want to be part of the archive. Further, in scanning materials out of copyright and providing full public access, this would in a manner unfairly promote these documents while those in copyright would only be provided limited or negligible access for viewing. This would form an imbalance of text accessibility. Could this politics of the text be rectified or a greater equilibrium found? Over time however, Grafton states that as “more of this material emerges from copyright protection, we’ll be able to learn things about our culture that we could have never have known previously” which does prove beneficial for all.

Further, with the major push for book digitization led by Google, Microsoft and the companies of like, this begs the question of whether this is the beginning of the privatization of a public good? As with all businesses, they pursue interests which benefit their own corporation. How will the eventual archives of documents be used to drive or increase their revenue? Will there be subscriptions or paid access? Grafton notes that the “materials from the poorest societies may not attract companies that rely on subscriptions or on advertising for cash flow.” As a result, the material from these societies would be limited to their own and not for the world. This would “prove unfortunate because these societies have the least access to printed books and thus to their own literature and history.” Poverty then could rear its ugly head once again through not only lack of food but also in lack of print and accessibility. Grafton notes that “the Internet will do much to redress this imbalance, by providing Western books for non-Western readers but what it will do for non-Western books is less clear.” To this point, I do not completely agree in that in order to access the Internet, technologies need to be more widely available and in poorer nations, the need to address basic needs has a higher priority. Further, in providing Western books for non-Western readers could also negatively impart Western values and culture to non-Western readers.

While there are mixed reviews regarding the digitization of books, Grafton does note that this process has the advantage of “fast and reliable methods of search and retrieval.” As compared to historical times, Internet technologies are improving and radically changing the manner in which we store and retrieve information at greater levels. After all, “search is everything.” The ability to “tag” items and “link” items has changed the manner in which we store and view our information.

With that being said, Grafton notes that we still cannot discard the physical artifact itself. His reasoning includes “the form in which you encounter a text can have a huge impact on how you use it.” I agree with this notion as the material and how print is presented affects individuals differently. The material is not simply words but also allows the reader to view the environment and age in which it was created. The book itself tells a story beyond what words are written in it and therefore, we cannot discard the physical artifact itself.

While we are still currently early in the stages of book digitization, only time will tell how the archive of books and its varied accessibly will stand the test of time. Is the paper a better format for text preservation as in the past or has it’s time come to cede to that of a more current technology?


Grafton, Anthony. (2007, 5 November). Future Reading:Digitization and its Discontents. The New Yorker.

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1 Response to Commentary 1 – Digitization and its Discontents

  1. Joe Dobson says:

    Hi Lee,

    I wrote on O’Donnell’s piece and he touches, in a different way, on many of the same topics.

    You ask: “Is the paper a better format for text preservation as in the past or has it’s time come to cede to that of a more current technology?”

    I think that part of the issue is the time frame we think of in terms of text preservation. How many books, except those stored under special conditions, will be around in three, five or ten thousand years. Similarly, how much data stored by Google and the like will be accessible and around at that time. I think in both cases, the loss will be astronomical.


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