Books, eBooks, and Libraries Roundup: Second epistle to the intellectual historians

By Benjamin Schmidt | February 24, 2012

The new USIH blogger LD Burnett has a post up expressing ambivalence about the digital humanities because it is too eager to reject books. This is a pretty common argument, I think, familiar to me in less eloquent forms from New York Times comment threads. It’s a rhetorically appealing position–to set oneself up as a defender of the book against the philistines who not only refuse to read it themselves, but want to take your books away and destroy them. I worry there’s some mystification involved–conflating corporate publishers with digital humanists, lumping together books with codices with monographs, and ignoring the tension between reader and consumer. This problem ties up nicely into the big event in DH in the last week–the announcement of the first issue of the ambitiously all-digital Journal of Digital Humanities. So let me take a minute away from writing about TV shows to sort out my preliminary thoughts on books.

First: the driving impetus behind quite a bit of digital humanities work is precisely the concern about unavailability and central control that seem to structure Burnett’s essay. DH is intensely, productively concerned with finding ways to keep gatekeepers from controlling access to texts. Many–most?–hate proprietary ebooks on principle. (Though they probably use them more than their peers, too). Indeed, I think it’s a common grumble in DH that most historians favor prestige in publication over openness and accessibility. No one that I know of is happily trying to “speed along… the obsolesence of the book”; rather, they are actively engaged in trying to find ways to retain the freedoms allowed by print culture while also taking a new opportunity to reevaluate its shortcomings.

What are these flaws? Well, Burnett says in the post “the technology for producing or reading a written text remains simple, robust, and nearly universally accessible”; while this is an important point about reading, it elides the central fact about printed text in the last 500 years, and especially the last 100. Anyone can write things on paper, a situation which is unlikely to change. The real discussion is not which is mightier, the pen or MS Word; it’s about digital publishing vs. offset lithography. It has been decades since books were produced by movable type, or anything so easy to understand mechanically. I got a chance to watch a massive newspaper press in action while designing Bookworm to run on a LAMP platform, and there’s no question in my mind as to which one is harder for a lonely humanist to harness. The major difference between a webserver and a modern printing press is not technological complexity; it’s the access to capital required to get one. A single person can host a web site, but getting access to a printing press requires the intermediation of precisely the powerful forces Burnett claims to be worried about.*

*There is one blindingly obvious exception to this, of course, which we’ll get to in a minute. 

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