Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Scholars like books, experts say

I really shouldn't snark about Alex Golub's article at Inside Higher Ed because I basically agree with its unsurprising conclusions: you can be technologically literate and still prefer reading books in paper form, for all the reasons Golub mentions.

Actually, what it did was send me back to Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library":

The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them. Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership--for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object. (Illuminations 60)

Although I collect books, I'm not a true collector in Benjamin's or anyone else's definition; I buy old books in order to read them and don't care much whether they're the first edition or a Grosset & Dunlap reprint. The Grolier Club is never going to beg me to join.

But I'm sufficiently enthralled by books to be dismayed at some of the things I've seen libraries do:

  • In my home town, throwing out centuries-old church and school records because, the librarian explained, "nobody cares about that old stuff any more." (I heard about this too late to rescue anything.)
  • At a local university, seeing bound books of local newspapers deaccessioned--"Help yourself!" before being carted off to the dumpster.
  • At another local university, seeing recent journal issues up for grabs on a "Free Books" table. I asked about this.

    "We don't need them," the librarian explained. "We have them online."

    Okay, I get that. What about the run of a major journal from 5-15 years ago, the paper copies of which are also missing in the library?

    "Don't need those either. We have them on microfiche."

    Of course. Microfiche. Motto: "Providing employment for optometrists since 1945."

    Someone should hang a banner: "Technological Mission Accomplished."
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