The Book is Not History

I love how the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) puts its money where its mouth is, by presenting its journal, Book History, as a very traditional-looking hardback in blue cloth binding with gilt lettering.

book_HistoryThe latest issue (vol. 17) is worth a look, not least for Matthew Kirschenbaum and Sarah Werner’s article ‘Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The State of the Discipline’. In it they drily remind readers of what it was like for long-suffering fans of the mere codex to live through the early days of the web:

Those who remember the first wave of academic enthusiasm for hypertext, cybertext, electronic textuality, and virtual-everything will also recall the unabashed enthusiasm with which glossy books with primary colored covers celebrated the coming of the empowered reader, the decentered author, non-linear narrative (seemingly paradoxically held together by “link”), and the equally paradoxical end of closure. These texts were laced with techno-neologisms or else imports from Continental theory: thus “hypertext” was deemed “writerly” after Roland Barthes, whereas the poor, staid pages of the conventional codex were condemned to be merely readerly. Readers themselves, meanwhile, clicked through “lexias” which populated hypertexts (or hypermedia), engaging “transversal functions” to navigate the “contours” of “textons” rendered on-screen in “flickering signifiers” dubbed “scriptons.” In journalism and the popular media, meditations on the death of the book were the order of the day. The Gutenberg Galaxy was preemptively mourned by the Gutenberg Elegies, while Wired Magazine served up a monthly dose of McLuhanesque folk wisdom coupled with edgy, pixelated layouts that emblematized a new aesthetic that was equal parts MTV and William Gibson. Text was reimagined as image, whether the suddenly ubiquitous banner ads on first-generation Web sites or the Photoshopped excesses of Wired‘s many imitators. Critics from Neil Postman to Michael Joyce reframed the age-old paragone between word and image as a new battle of the books: “Hurry up please, it’s time,” Joyce wrote in 1991. “We are in the late age of print; the time of the book has passed. The book is an obscure pleasure like the opera or cigarettes. The book is dead, long live the book.”

This obviously will draw a smile emoticon from anyone who remembers the era. Yes, books are certainly changing, but sales of traditional books are actually still growing, Nielsen Bookscan figures show. The Financial Times reported in January that book sales were buoyant : ‘the plot has now twisted sharply, with publishers and book chains in the US, UK and Australia celebrating sales figures showing the resilience of physical editions and of bricks-and-mortar stores.’

On the Changes at the National Library of Australia

I love the National Library of Australia, particularly the archives there. I always thought that when I died (hopefully at some far distant date) it would be lovely (if no doubt impermissible) to have a few of my ashes sprinkled in the manuscripts reading room on level 2, near the window with the view of Lake Burley Griffin and the flowering cherry trees. That room was my idea of heaven. Sadly, however, all in the name of improvement, readers of manuscripts are now directed to a refurbished internal space on level 1 in the centre of the building. It’s much bigger, for sure, and elegantly fitted out, but it is no longer possible to sit close to an external window. It also lacks the charm and companionable atmosphere of the previous room, which was much smaller, and where you might have found yourself bumping elbows with a luminary historian or national cultural icon at the next desk.

This is not the end of the changes, either. Last week when I was there on a rush visit which included Saturday, I found that the library has changed its rules and no longer retrieves books from its collections on weekends. A friendly member of staff whose name I do not know told me this was due “mainly to budget cuts”. The inconvenience to visiting scholars is great, and has either not been thought through, or is not considered a priority. Having hauled myself up to Canberra at my own expense, prepared for two days of blitzing the archives, I was disappointed and frustrated to find that books I wanted to consult as cross-references to the papers I was working on were not available because it was a Saturday. Some of these books are only available in the NLA, not other libraries. Had I known I needed them, I could have booked ahead, reserving them by Friday afternoon. But the whole point of digging in the archives is discovery: often you don’t know what works you’ll need for cross-referencing, because you can’t anticipate everything you might turn up in the papers.

Just to top off this whinge, I note that although the new reading room is larger, the reference collection from the old reading room has been consolidated. Yes, you might now be able to look up the Dictionary of National Biography online, but it’s definitely not the same as that physical process of cross-reading which to me is such an integral aspect of working in a traditional archive, and which leads to so many serendipitous discoveries and insights.