Digital Libraries Considered Bad

Sometimes, you just have to shake your head at the stupidity of people. Today’s installment comes from the editorial pages of the New York Times, where we find the following (registration required):

To the Editor:

Re “Google Is Adding Major Libraries to Its Database” (front page, Dec. 14):

While having online access to some great libraries promises to facilitate research in democratizing access to books, it is worth keeping some things in mind.

A digital version of a book – especially a rare one, printed centuries ago – is not a replacement for the hard copy.

Not only has printed paper proved a durable technology, but there is also much to be gained by visiting the libraries, examining the actual books and entering into discussions with librarians and other researchers.

Gaining access to a digital reproduction of an older text makes it easier to take a first step, but little good research will be done simply sitting alone in front of a computer screen.

Lisa Shapiro
Vancouver, British Columbia
Dec. 14, 2004
The writer is an assistant professor of philosophy at Simon Fraser University.

It’s hard to imagine a more stupid response to the news that Google will open up access to potentially millions of books via the Internet. Honestly Professor Shapiro, just what are you thinking?

It is clear (and obvious) that digital copies are not the same as having the real book. But consider this: I have never seen a real Gutenberg Bible. But I know what one looks like. I haven’t seen copies of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelescium, or Galileo’s Siderius Noncius, but I can buy them. Are you saying that my ability to do research is somehow inhibited by the relatively easy ability of inexpensive digital copies of these works?

And for pity sakes, when you say that you are deprived of conversations with librarians and researchers, just what do you think the Internet is for? That screen in front of you? It allows you to communicate with millions and soon to be billions of other people.

And those librarians and researchers? They publish books too. Books that will be made available through digitization efforts like the one Google proposed. I don’t need to be in the same room to them to be influenced by their ideas.

Consider going over to Project Gutenberg’s CD Project website. You can download 600 eBooks onto a CD. You can download 9400 books onto a DVD. If Professor Shapiro thinks that nothing will come of making these works available at literally no cost to anyone within range of the Internet, I can’t help but shake my head at the ivory tower that these academics live in.