The announcement of the new German Digital Library, or Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, made me realize just how limited our thinking is about electronic reading today. It is part of the broader Europeana initiative and as such has an impressive collection of both books and images. As I played with the interface, however, it became clear that while I could look at the items all I wanted, I couldn’t actually do anything with them (not even save them). It brought home for me the way electronic reading is increasingly being understood as synonymous with viewing. Under the banner of “access” we are in fact making texts ever more distant from us.
Now don’t get me wrong (ever since Slate all of my second paragraphs start like that): the collection of works that the DDB makes accessible is indeed impressive. It will be a great boon to scholars and the general public alike. I regularly experience frustrations about working with overseas collections and so I am, in a very real and immediate way, a direct beneficiary of this kind of initiative.
My concern is that the initiative stops there, for all sorts of reasons, some unknown, some clearly ideological. DBB is essentially a virtual layer placed on top of regional libraries’ virtual presentations of their collections. While valuable as a tool of aggregation, what it does in practice is make those collections’ material identities increasingly distant from readers. We have a virtual experience of a text — the “page view” — but we have no tangible, manipulable relationship to the text.
I don’t just mean we can’t touch the books that were the basis of the digitizations, though this is of course important. I also mean that we can’t do anything analytically with the words underneath (or within?) the images. They’re inert. It’s the worst of both print and digital worlds.
Until we get past the page view as the main way of thinking about electronic text, we’re not seriously going to be reading in an electronic fashion. As many scholars have spent much time pointing out, looking is indeed a crucial aspect of reading. There is more to text than just words. This is an important correction of a critical trend that dominated much of the twentieth century and that tended to look past the material aspects of reading.
But the interaction and reworking of the words on the page is also a crucial aspect of reading, one that combines a critical and creative acumen in one stroke and that has all sorts of historical precedents. Reducing reading to the page view is the single most deleterious way of making sure this aspect of reading doesn’t happen.
We need to think about texts not only as visual objects, but also as manipulable ones. We need institutional support for the making of critical digital collections, ones that aren’t just a bunch of pdf’s but that are plain text files open to quantitative analysis. That’s the next step in digitization, but I don’t yet see any public support for it.