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Digital books and electronic resources; convenient but odorless.

Robert Darnton, Harvard’s library director, recently wrote an article for the The New York Review of Books entitled, The Library in the New Age. In it he talks of the importance of physical books in a research library and how digital libraries, although good resources, are not reliable. In particular, he discusses the drawbacks of Google Book Search, which searches and displays certain digitized books from the Google Library Project. To Darnton, a digitized document is one that may be compromised, “Google will make mistakes…it will miss books, skip pages, blur images, and fail in many ways to reproduce texts perfectly.” He worries researchers may become too reliant on Google’s digital library and be limited by what Google makes most accessible. He points out the dangers of ‘digital only’ libraries, and the potential for massive amounts of information to be lost due to power outages, file corruption, and so on.

In general, I agree that digital libraries and internet resources can be unreliable. Information found on the world wide web is ephemeral and often times, inaccurate. We have all encountered broken links and out-dated or missing information on websites. Digital libraries often contain more accurate information, however, they are unreliable in that they can be removed from the internet at any time. But their convenience cannot be denied. Anyone with an internet connection can access a wealth of information in seconds. I am all for this. And so is Darnton really. “Long live Google!” he proclaims, the only problem is we don’t really know how long Google will live. If Google was devoured by another corporation that disabled the entire Library Project millions of online texts could vanish. Which is why we still need well-stocked libraries and why relying solely on the internet for information can be risky. Digital libraries must be ‘backed up’ with the most reliable copies possible, which today, are still of he old paper [acid-free preferred!] and ink variety.

Darnton stresses the importance of the physical book for both researchers and the “ordinary reader.” With older and rare books in particular, researchers may find additional information from actually handling them [please note: handling may involve protective gloves, stiff cradles, and a strict ‘PENCILS ONLY’ policy] . Information about the author, the culture of the time, or even the book itself can be revealed in its binding, paper quality, and marginal notes. And for the general reading public, Darnton argues that digital libraries cannot rival the experiences held within traditional libraries; of being able to immerse oneself in books and do so in a quiet and comfortable place. And let us not forget the smell of musty old books! An odor so loved by, um…43% of French students that they continue to resist e-books, although it seems, “CafĂ©Scribe, a French on-line publisher, is trying to counteract [the] reaction by giving its customers a sticker that will give off a fusty, bookish smell when it is attached to their computers.”

Now realistically, I think scholarly researchers know older books and rare book rooms can be treasure troves of information. Having worked in one myself, I found it was evident to most people requesting the materials that they were handling hardbound bits of history, and that digital representation would not suffice. But let us not forget the many not-quite-so-scholarly researchers all over the world that may benefit from just the text of the book but do not have the resources to access it directly. This is where digital libraries and e-books can shine. They can serve to complement physical texts. After all, books are meant to be read. And the more people that can access the information contained within them the better we all are for it.

Digital libraries and electronic books can be useful and convenient but I agree with Darnton that books, those bona fide to the real thing, should not and will not be replaced by their digital counterpart. There is value in turning a page, in holding a book in your hands and reading to yourself in your favorite setting, in reading to others, in sharing books, in annotating them, in collecting them and even arranging them! To many, the act of sitting down and reading a physical book brings about a sense of warmth, coziness, and joy. Whereas, I find there is something so cold about reading books on a computer screen or e-reader and ‘turning pages’ with a keystroke or stylus. I feel as though doing so should be reserved for scanning textbooks or when no other option is available. As for those potent book smells, both new and old, well I have to say I’m a fan but I still want one of those book-ey smelling stickers.

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