The Premature Death of Dust

Ahh, dusty books. A charming piece in the Times Higher Education on the days when students used to go to libraries to do research. Now we just sit at our computers. Where’s the fun in that?

It’s on old quip of course. And not at all accurate. Yes, some professors and students do all of their research digitally. They’re called digital humanists. But for many, many others, the books housed in libraries and the papers housed in archives are indispensable. Actually, they are getting more, not less important.

It’s fairly easy to see why. If getting access to digitized collections becomes easier and easier (by no means universal, but that’s a different discussion), then rare copies, all that non-digitized stuff, accrues in value. Rarity is a form of novelty and scholarship trades in nothing so much as novelty. One of the easiest ways to motivate a research project today is to base it on rare, undigitized materials housed in a library or archive somewhere. This is as true today as it was, for example, in the nineteenth century. As more and more of the cultural heritage of European states was printed, it became increasingly valuable for academics to travel to libraries and pour over their collections of medieval manuscripts.

The Stanford scholar, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, once claimed that this attraction to material texts has “the whiff of the ontic” about it (a Germanic parody I believe of Greenblatt’s “touch of the real”). By that I think he means that talking about real books (as opposed to digital or imaginary ones) makes our observations feel somehow more real, more tangible (or smellable?). Ignoring for a moment the fallacy that electronic texts aren’t material, the important point is that the allure of dusty books isn’t only a matter of their so-called tangibility; it has much to do with the economy of knowledge production that belongs to universities. There is value to the tangible text (in this case paper) because of the simultaneous rise in value of the electronic, just as their was value to the manuscript in a world of more and more print.

That dusty whiff is only going to grow in the years to come, not diminish, as more students learn the scholarly value that lies in wait for them down in the stacks below.  I’m all for it of course, as long as we don’t think that just because something is digitized that it is “there,” by which I mean easy to find. The great discovery — whether it’s a manuscript lying untouched for centuries in a repository or a pattern of words in a mountain of data — are both equally thrilling and require equal amounts of hard work, just of a different nature. The find can take many forms, but patience and boredom are its muses.

Dust isn’t going anywhere and neither are libraries or the doctoral (and doctored) trolls who rummage through them.