Today was the first ever CLAW conference , which was hosted at Davidson and supported by Libertas and The Davidsonian. I attended several of the events during the day, and I gained a lot from the sessions and lecture I went to, even though I wasn’t the target audience (the conference was mainly for student editors of campus publications.)
I intend to write a couple blog posts summarizing what I learned and thought about at the various events, but in this post I want to focus on something that I thought about a lot today, and which causes me (and clearly others,) a great deal of anxiety – the values and challenges posed by physical and digital forms of media and information.
This is something I have thought about a lot as I have learned more about digital humanities work and the ebook publishing world, both of which fascinate and excite me. As we go digital, what do we lose? The content may be the same, but what will we sacrifice? Is the payoff of democratized access and more content more important than the physical substance of a book, a library, an academic journal, or a student newspaper or publication? What do we lose when we leave behind physical space and records?
At the CLAW conference, Fred Moody talked about this when he was discussing the landscape of digital humanities work. He discussed the changing role of the university library in the context of new digital work. He said that in a recent study, a university found that many of its books had never even been checked out, which is an obvious waste of resources, salary, and space. The days of browsing idly through shelves and flipping through pages to find information for a research paper are past. Libraries and research spaces with some foresight have adapted, transforming into physical hubs where digital information is accessed; for example, Seattle University has dubbed itself a “Learning Commons,” or, in Moody’s words, a “digital playground.” Moody pointed to the Digital National Library of Korea as an excellent example of a physical / digital workspace.
The academy and the library are changing, and there are real positives to the change, most particularly the wealth of information that digitization makes possible, and the democratization of access to that information. Digital humanities is closely tied to this idea of democratizing information – the flipped classroom, which makes a professor a “guide on the side” instead of “sage on the stage;” the use of open source software for research tool; the new model of collaborative writing; the building of course websites, accessible to all; the new trend of MOOCs; the use of social media for discussion and work; etc. Several prominent digital archives even explicitly state democratic principles in their mission statements, such as Europeana, which says “we make heritage available to people,” and DPLA, which wants the “cultural and scientific record available for all.”
All of this is deeply exciting. As a digital native, I am used to having information literally at my fingertips in a moment. But the implications of that accessibility go far beyond the ability to research and write a paper from your dorm room. It also gives the university – and especially the much maligned humanities – a new and important relevance. If the university can become the physical access point and provider of that digital information, it can stay relevant while also claiming the traditional role of the university as the base of knowledge: written, spoken, collected, and transmitted. What the university or college cannot do is remain the arbiter of knowledge, or it will become irrelevant. The ivory tower will not be able to stand in the new age of flooded information; it will need to be dismantled and rebuilt as, well, something new, something as yet unknown and unnamed.
I welcome these changes, and I think universities and their libraries will adapt. But some part of me definitely mourns the changes. Especially the changes that I think Moody rightly suggested, are coming to libraries. I love the romance of the book and the library. I have fond memories of my elementary school library, discovering Misty of Chincoteague, Little Women, and Nancy Drew because they had pretty covers. I found them, and claimed them, and sank into their pages happily in the enforced quiet of the school library.
Maybe I am being ridiculous. As my boss pointed out as we discussed this on twitter, “content still the same!” But as I responded, “yes, but you lose the physical pleasures of musty smell, old pages, and quiet corners. I think it’s the future, but I am wistful.”
And when the group of student editors discussed the possibility of moving their magazines to digital and dropping print, they had similar resistance to abandoning the print forms. I understood. It’s not quite as satisfying to say, here Grandma, look at my poem online, as to hand her a printed copy in a bound anthology. Why is that? Is it simply that we are trained to revere the printed? That digital is too new? Are we afraid of letting others in? Making it less special, less unique? I don’t know.
But, I feel a similar emotional tug when I think about ebooks. I LOVE ebooks. I’m thrilled with the development, excited about the changes in the industry, and energized by the possibilities. I love the convenience of reading on my Nook. So many books can get to so many people. It’s great. But, I still cherish the books I physically possess, and their familiar wrinkles and stains and smells.
Things are changing – for the academy, publishing, and writing, and I want to be apart of it. But I guess I can understand the resistance, because I feel it in myself too. There is fear and a sadness to leaving behind the way we’ve always done things. What if my far-distant daughter or son never enter a library full of books? What if they never feel that magic?
Then again, if they can have access to all the world’s knowledge, and all the world’s stories, won’t that be even better?