Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Books on the internet

A librarian responds to Google’s attempt to digitize all the books in a number of major libraries and gathering all "the information in the world."
(Also see this below).
I am not asserting that this is the best, or the clearest, response that may be offered in favor books, I merely note that a librarian wrote it, never mind anything about knowing "the mind of God."

Discussions - 2 Comments

I count as inestimable the blessings of what GOOGLE is up to putting books on the computer. The more I have thought about any criticism of this historical fact as to what’s happening, the less I can conceive of any rational, as opposed to aesthetic, basis for opposition to it. In electronic form, literature maintains its form and content. I use form and content here in the sense it seems they are used by Aristotle in Poetics 13 and 14. There he says Sophocles’ OEDIPUS TYRANNUS is a great example of the content of a Greek tragedy in its excellent unhappy ending (13), but it OEDIPUS TYRANNUS is still a second-rate tragedy [likely because of its weakness as to form] (14). These commentaries will appear with equal probity or lack there of in the electronic versions of both the POETICS and OEDIPUS TYRANNUS.

From an aesthetic standpoint, there’s something to the view that the Bible is more powerful when read from a scroll drafted by some ancient scrivener. I think the tablets of the Ten Commandments would be VERY IMPOSING indeed. Furthermore, the charge that King George III "has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hitter Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance," while imposing in its own right, is even more impressive when scrawled in large letters by the hand of a man who was drafting his life away. Nevertheless, I doubt very much that Abraham Lincoln considered the actual draft of the Declaration in preparing for his debates with Judge Douglas. The arguments from aestheticism against electronicizing documents proves too much when it attempts to move beyond aesthetics. But that is for another day, since many will call this aesthicism altogether rational and a sound basis for an attack on electronicizing. There have always been scribblers.

There are many, many virtues to electronicizing documents in a democratic, liberal society. I think the translation of the Bible into the vernacular is a sufficient, if complex, analogue for most of these virtues. It permits the vast diffusion of knowledge (good (and bad=bomb-making (and to some empiricism, historicism, or scientism))). Knowledge is power, etc. etc. Furthermore, from a scholarly perspective, it increases the availability, sufficiency, and efficiency of research. All of the sudden, Straussians can search for the central word of the central paragraph of the central chapter in a text with the click of a button. Think of the opportunities for unmasking through means of Adobe Acrobat the esotericism of Maimonades, Beothius, Machiavelli, and Hegel. There’s not need to lay out the empiricism of the efficiencies and sufficiencies involved I don’t think. There are certain costs to the new availability of yet unknown volumes in the research cache, difficult in scope narrowing, etc., but most of these are formal and will likely be worked out with new research methodologies. In the law they are teaching such new methods as a very broad "terms and connectors" search to grab a constellation of relevant materials followed by a series of narrowing searches within that constellation. I put this out just as an example of the new techniques that develop to cut the empirical costs of the new system.

If anything, we are faced with a fabulous new opportunity here, and I think it would be virtuous and manly to be rash in our pursuit of electronicizing literature of all genres. I’m going to buy stock in Google.

It’s a gargantuan project, but something that needs doing. And it’s still just the beginning.

With the ever-expanding limits on duration of copyrights (to the benefit of major corporations, and seldom to that of the authors or their families) huge numbers of books will simply disappear into obscurity and dust before they can become available to the public. If there isn’t a significant profit in republishing an old work, it will never again see the light of day.

Several times I have tried to find a copy of an old book, out of print for 30 years, but it is nearly impossible to be found (for example, some of the books in the Fantomas series... not great literature, but fun reading). And if I could find a copy, it would likely be so tired and brittle that it would fall apart while I was reading it. There is such a small market for these old books that publishers simply will not reprint them.

Google should be praised for their effort, but please do not forget about Project Gutenburg, which continues in their long-term project to digitize many older works whose copyright has expired.

Project Gutenburg

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