When I started my projects, in 1997, there was little online. To get access to books, I had to visit a major research library. I cadged a reader’s ticket, sans borrowing privileges, and made day trips. Once there, I browsed the stacks and photocopied and photocopied whatever I could, for an exaggerated price. Some items – many items – were confined to the rare books room, and so could only be photocopied by the staff. This cost twice as much, and invariably involved a delay of a week. Always the copies were very bad quality.
In less than twenty years, everything has changed. Books are available in vast amounts online. Access is still a thorny issue, but this will change. We are in a period of transition.
Things once unthinkable are now routine. I remember, in the late 90s, going to the British Library in London and asking innocently if I might photograph a manuscript. The keeper whom I asked became very rude, almost as if I had asked for the casual use of her daughter for the night. Today you can stroll in with your mobile phone and builtin camera.
I’ve spent much of today scanning a book containing a modern English translation of a patristic biblical commentary. It’s hard, time-consuming work. But I don’t actually want a paper copy. A PDF will be far more useful to me, especially once I make it searchable. So I am converting my three volume paper copy into PDFs. Naturally I am somewhat irked at spending my time thus, when I know that the paper copies were printed from an electronic PDF!! But no matter … this too is a matter of transition. Already translations are being offered in PDF, at ridiculous prices, and these too will fall.
I don’t scan very much these days. My days are shorter than they once were, and I am more tired. I can’t put the output from this task online either. But I just want the floor space. Still, it brought back a memory or two, turning the volume on the scanner and working over the images in FineReader. What I would have given in 1997 for the hardware and software I have today!!
But once everything is online, or at least in electronic form, what becomes of the offline material?
But while scanning, my mind drifted to a Sci-Fi novel, in which this future is envisaged. The work is Archform Beauty, by L.E.Modesitt. The work is written from the perspective of the heroine, a professional singer and academic in a world with a diminishing need for art music.
I was buried in the southwest corner of the lowest level of the university library. My eyes burned as I flicked past image after image in the reader, hurrying through decades of information quickly, trying to locate old photos and stories not in the link archives–or even fragments of stories …
On Monday, I’d done what I could. I awakened early and gotten in a good two hours of practice, plus some exercise, and managed to get to the university a good twenty minutes before my lesson with Abdullah. The lesson had been good.
I’d gone to the library to browse through the closed stacks and try to discover some more older sheet music that had never been scanned into the system–in hopes of finding something unique. I didn’t. Back in November, I had found a “lost” song cycle of a twentieth-century composer named Britten, called “On This Island”–very haunting and beautiful. I wasn’t that lucky on Monday.
I decided not to go back home, but to check my office. It was old-fashioned, but I’d never linked the office and my conapt. I still felt that unless the university wanted to make me full contract, they didn’t deserve instant, around-the-clock access. I really felt that way at that moment.
The first message was from Mahmed. He was smiling, but it wasn’t a condescending expression. “Luara, I just wanted to confirm that we’re on for three-thirty on Tuesday. If that’s a problem, let me know. It will be a long session. Cannon has some new ads he wants to record. We may have to schedule another session on Wednesday. I hope you can do that.” …
The second message was from a tall blonde woman.
“This is SuEllen Crayno of the Crayno Agency. Mahmed Solyman of Crescent Productions provided your codes. We’d be very much interested in talking to you. If you’re interested, please let me know.”
Was I interested? How could I not be interested, with Dean Donald suggesting that he was just dying to throw me out once he could figure out a way? …
After that, I checked the system for memos and documents. The only thing of interest was a note from the library to inform me that the section I’d been searching manually was scheduled for purging in June. Purging? Just because no one wanted to take the time to scan the information or read through it? There was no way I could search it all by June. How many other songs or song cycles were there, like the Britten cycle, that would be lost forever? There might not be any, but I had no way to know.
Still, I had to try. So I went back to the stacks and spent three hours. I found nothing. Then, I got a sandwich from the student center and ate it before I walked to the shuttle station to head home.
Will it be thus? Administrators “purging” offline archives, once everything of importance is online? I think that it will.
Libraries cost money. Do we need large buildings, heavily staffed, full of paper, if “everything of importance” is online, in databases, collections, and so forth? For a university accountant, the answer is self-evidently not. A generation may be needed, but those volumes will be sold, the staff dismissed, and the building repurposed.
Such changes in information technology have happened before. When the codex replaced the roll, whatever was not copied into the snazzy new book format was lost. And only materials of interest at that time were likely to make the transition. We probably lost half of Tacitus at that time, for instance. Likewise when printing replaced hand-copying, we lost vast numbers of manuscripts, many irreplaceable. Now a new gateway is at hand through which the knowledge of the human race must pass.
Perhaps we’d all better get scanning.