Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Googling Around

Every day, we read news articles and press releases (often it is difficult to tell them apart) about how every document, book, article, work of art, and piece of ephemera will be digitized and placed on the Web. In some ways, this is only a continuation of a historic quest to build a universal library or archive. Google, and its aim to digitize all of the world’s books, has drawn considerable commentary, most of it, at least by the public and the media, quite positive. The saga is a “seductive” one for archivists and librarians, as Ian Wilson, the head of Canada’s National Archives and Library, writes in an introduction to Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View from Europe, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), ISBN-10: 0-226-39577-4: Google’s offer is “seductive to chronically underfunded libraries and archives, the custodians of our societies’ cumulative documentary heritage. The potential to open the extensive, sometimes fragile holdings of these institutions for education, research, and other public uses is powerful and realizes a central goal of generations of both librarians and archivists” (p. viii). Wilson, reflecting on Jeanneney’s text, then wonders if Google and such objectives are a good match.

Jeanneney, president of France’s National Library, reviews the Google approach and critiques it. He contrasts the long-term cultural mission of librarians and archivists with the short-term business aims of Google, arguing that there is the need for a renewed commitment to the work of librarians (and by implication, archivists): “The social and cultural function of librarians will be increasingly important and prestigious in the future; they will be even more useful to the public, and their profession will become more satisfying. For years. A common perception, maintained by various stereotypes, has tended to reduce the role of librarians to that of providing books, images, recordings, and other documents. In reality, librarians have always helped to organize chaos, to guide readers to the information they are seeking among the vast quality of sources and media that contain it. And now, with the irruption of digitization, this essential function will be enhanced, and librarians should benefit from renewed recognition. More than ever before, they will stand beside professors and schoolteachers as essential intermediaries of knowledge” (p. 23). One can also assume from this that the librarian and archivist also will need to be far more proactive than ever in grappling with all the implications posed by the work of Google.

What are the various challenging issues we face with Google’s digital book project? For now, Google is not charging for access, but the company makes no guarantee that it will not add a commercial aspect to this at some time in the future. Google also has caved into pressure from certain governments, such as China, to allow the censoring by restricting access to certain web sites; will it also censor who has access to the digitized books? Google has no sense about the issues of preservation. Nor has Google really developed any logical concepts about the selection of books to be digitized. The greatest problem about any of this, however, may be that Google is one of those highly volatile enterprises. If we depend on this company for digitizing massive quantities of books, what might happen when the company collapses or is bought out?

In the midst of such challenges and often perplexing matters, Jeanneney suggests reasons for hope and confidence about the future role of cultural repositories such as libraries and archives. In evaluating Google’s activities, Jeanneney poses a scenario where such professionals are facing substantial changes, but where these changes may lead to new and improved approaches. He writes, for example, that “a system for organizing knowledge should never be immutable. In this regard we are breaking away from traditional libraries, which preserve works on paper. Those libraries necessarily arrange their holdings on shelves and rarely alter them, whereas the arrangement of digital stock can be lively and changing” (p. 72). We can extrapolate such comments and suggest that archivists, librarians, museum curators, and other such professionals need to reconsider traditional approaches in light of changing expectations of researchers and the public generated by the public. However, this is different, as Jeanneney carefully describes, than placing our faith in a commercial enterprise.

From such commercial and societal changes there emerges a new mandate for professionals such as archivists and librarians. Jeanneney argues that we must educate people to have the appropriate “intellectual tools” to master the Internet. Adults, he muses, “will find our digitized collections indispensable instruments for maintaining perspective in the face of the bombardment of new information, which they themselves must place in context, classify, and weigh. Unless a culture organizes that information, society is condemned to accept the mere dissemination of information, harmful to intellectual clarity and to a rich and harmonious public life” (p. 87). And with such notions, we return to the importance of the work of librarians and archivists.