Digital Archives

Internet Archive

One of the most fascinating things about the Internet from when I first started using it twenty years ago was this sense of having the world at your fingertips. I remember downloading Mosaic for the first time and discovering this thing they called a search engine, in this case, an early version of Yahoo. Organized by categories, you could search and drill down from topic to topic.

Eventually Google supplanted Yahoo, and then conceived the project back in 2004 of digitizing every known book. I’ve used this to track down quotes to their sources (and sometimes discovered that there was no source for the quote attributed to a particular author). I’ve downloaded 19th century sermon collections available for free. I understand that in recent years, Google has slowed down these efforts. Some would contend this reflects a shift in mission to use of search data in marketing, but it also reflects the fact that they’ve digitized over 20 million books! And they’ve been hampered by some lawsuits along the way.

Another outfit that has also been digitally archiving books and an incredible array of other materials is the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is a non-profit effort launched in 1996 in San Francisco that includes text, audio, moving pictures, software, and, significantly, archived web pages. I discovered for example that you can look at a collection of archived campaign webpages from 1996. One of the challenges of the internet is its ephemerality. Have you ever come across a weblink that no longer works or a page that no longer exists? The Internet Archive may be the place that still has a record of this. From their homepage you can use their Wayback machine to enter an old URL to see if it is in their archives.

One of the other standout features of Internet Archive for the computer geek is old software from MS-DOS games to VisiCalc for the Apple II. They even have an emulator that allows you to play the games in your browser. Yes, you can play Oregon Trail again!

One writer described the Internet Archive as “a chaotic, beautiful mess”. Indeed, among other places you can go from their home page is a free audiobook collection, a Grateful Dead collection, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, The Iraq War Collection, The Portuguese Web archive, and that collection of MS-DOS software!

The question of course, is whether you can find what you are looking for. My sense is that Google’s search algorithms are better for getting you in the neighborhood of what you are looking for. But the Internet archive is just a fun place to snoop around, and you can do it from your own home.

It occurs to me that one of the big questions around the future of libraries and archives is both how to preserve materials in physical form and also to continue to preserve digitized materials including media that only ever had a digital format, especially because of the weird paradox that digital materials often degrade far faster than the printed page. It makes me wonder if a journal on my daily doings will last longer than my social media presence on Facebook’s servers–of course, who is going to want to study either?

At any rate, exploring all this reminded me that librarians and archivists to day face very different challenges in preserving not only printed primary source materials but the digital record of our society. It will be an interesting task to figure out what is important enough to safe and what is just ephemera!

Reading 2.0?

I continue to find Jason Merkoski’s Burning the Page quite thought provoking.  One of his chapters is titled “Reading 2.0” after the software convention of naming new versions.  Merkoski explores some of the ways reading might change with the digitization of texts, particular with the search capacity of Google. He proposes that in fact all books are part of One Book and that digitization more possible to realize this reality.

There is an aspect of this that I thoroughly appreciate.  As I commented in “My Books Are Talking To Each Other“, books do converse with each other and are artifacts of a great human conversation that spans the ages. Understanding how an earlier writer influences the writer whose work I’m reading makes my reading of that work deeper. The Great Books series even included a Syntopicon to catalog 102 Great Ideas and references to them in the Great Books. With the search capabilities of Google and the ability to link content via hypertext, Merkoski contends that it is instantly possible to trace this “conversation” from one book to the next and to approach the reality of “one book”.

While aspects of this seem attractive, this also seems a prescription for what I might call “Reading ADHD”, an addiction to reading “rabbit trails” where one never follows just one work to its conclusion.  In limited form, such a capability could enhance our understanding of key ideas in a text. Annotated works serve a similar function.  Run rampant, and it would seem to be the ultimate reading distraction–a distraction to attentive reading.  I wonder if in fact it could function to re-wire the brain in ways that increase the prevalence of true ADHD?

I was staying with a friend in Chicago last night who works as a reference librarian for one of the major universities in Chicago and we got to talking about this.  He spoke of “losing the experience of drinking deeply and slowly from one book” that may be a result of such reading. The wonder of a really good book is to immerse oneself in this particular author’s vision of the world, not to have that vision diffused by all the others who have what seem “related” thoughts.

As we develop these capacities, I wonder if we need to be mindful of what makes for “good reading”.  I wonder if at the very least whether it means that we can turn on or off these functions as appropriate. How do you think digital media will change reading? Do you think there are downsides to this technology that should be avoided or addressed? How do you think reading could be enhanced with this technology? It seems to many that this is a change that is inevitably coming. What I wonder is whether the particular shape of that change is inevitable. Or do we have choices, some better, and some worse? What do you think?