The History of Books and the Digital Future

A talk by Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library at Harvard, for the American Trust for the British Library given at The Grolier Club on May 20, 2010.

I am honored to participate in the Breslauer Lecture series and grateful for the opportunity to try out some ideas about the history of books and the future of publishing. Instead of speculating about what may eventually take place in cyberspace, I would like to wander back into the eighteenth century, report on some archival research, and argue my way around an apparent paradox: old books and e-books are not incompatible media located at opposite ends of publishing technology; they are natural allies, and they belong together in ways we are only beginning to imagine.

Thirty years ago, I set out to write a general study of the book trade in pre-revolutionary France.  I had been through so much material–50,000 letters in the papers of an important French-Swiss publisher, the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), and thousands of other documents from the archives of the Book Trade Administration in Paris–that I could follow all the twists and turns of the book business in every corner of the kingdom.  But that was the problem: I had too much information…. Then along came the Internet.  I saw the possibility of writing a new kind of book–in part a conventional narrative, which would be printed in the normal way; in part a collection of monographs and documents, which could be accessed through the Internet….

The printed version of the book I have in mind will not go into every aspect of the subject in detail.  I will write a chapter on smuggling, a chapter on the struggle for survival among booksellers in Marseilles, and a chapter on piracy, along with similar case studies.  In the electronic version, I will provide a large amount of complementary material for each chapter, arranged (conceptually, not electronically) in the shape of a pyramid.  The printed text will be the apex of the pyramid.  Thus, for example, readers of the printed book who want to find out more about smuggling, can log on to the electronic version, select the chapter from a menu, click down one level, and take their pick of short monographs about Faivre, Revol, Pion, and a half-dozen other professional smugglers.  If those short narratives excite more interest, the readers can click down to level three and read through selections from the smugglers’ correspondence translated into English.  Really serious readers can pursue the trail deeper down to level four, where I will provide transcriptions of entire dossiers in the original French.  Transcriptions are invariably imperfect, however, owing to ambiguities in the manuscripts; so specialized scholars can click down to level five and study digitized versions of the originals.  This kind of book will require a new kind of reading, one that proceeds vertically as well as horizontally.  It could also involve diagonal zig-zagging, because I plan to intersperse each sector with maps, contemporary engravings of mountain passes, scenes of city streets, accounts of life in country inns, information about horses, and hyperlinks to related themes in other dossiers.  Each reader will find his or her own path through the material.  Each will print out the parts that he or she finds most interesting.  Each print-out can be trimmed and bound in a matter of minutes, thanks to technological advances in what is already a major industry: Print-on-Demand, with printers linked to binders in dispensers like ATM machines.  The result should be an endless supply of custom-made paperbacks, every one different from all the others.  E-books of this kind will transform the relationship between writers and readers.  Readers will become collaborators, or even adversaries, of the scholars who provide the components of each book.  Although the material will conform to strict, academic standards, everyone can make of it what they want.  There will be no fixed text and no limits, aside from built-in guarantees against falsifying the documents, to the empowerment of the readers.
By now you may suspect me of succumbing to a futuristic notion of utopia.  You may have many objections to what I have proposed.  I know it has flaws, and I shudder at the prospect of becoming entangled in the World Wide Web.  But whether or not I succeed in this particular task, I hope I have said enough to convince you that old books and e-books are not enemies.  They are allies.  We need to strengthen the ties between them and among all modes of communication, not merely for the purpose of expanding the range of technology but in order to democratize access to information in a Republic of Learning, open to everyone everywhere.

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