Digitizing the Past

Dual-Makeup: Digitization and Books

For someone who lives in the digital age, I have what I think is probably an outsized appreciation for the card catalogue.  I have used the phrase “don’t trust the computers” more times than anyone outside of a dystopian science fiction novel has any right to have done (to be clear: I was speaking about a specific computer system that, in my defense, may have been HAL’s stupider brother).  With that said, digitized material has become so much a part of my research routine that imagining life without it is legitimately freaky.  I’m hoping to take a closer look at what is gained and what is lost by this dependance on computerized sources, even though the fact that the computers have made us dependent on them for information actually does sound like the beginning of a dystopian science fiction novel.  Oh well, let’s risk it.

When I think about computers saving my hide on research problems, there is exactly one name that comes to mind: George Overcash Seilhamer.  Unbelievably, that is the name of a real person who actually existed, and who authored a three volume history of the American theater.  His book is one of a few multi-volume theatrical histories that, while not always what you might call “reliable,” are nevertheless meticulously detailed accounts of 18th and 19th century American theater.  To say that they are useful is an almost irresponsible degree of understatement.  With that said, they are also all out of print.  I have only actually held these reference books in my hands a few times in library reading rooms, and each time, the volume in my hands was so delicate I was afraid to turn the pages.  When I found out that Seilhamer’s (and Dunlop, another author of a similar type) works were digitized on Google Books, I was happy about the fact that they were searchable, but ecstatic about the fact that I could flip through the pages with abandon, albeit virtually.

That last sentence hits on what is perhaps both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of digitized books – the ease of searching.  Digitization allows me to access sources in a few days that would normally take a great deal of time or money to access.  For example, there is a copy of The Book of Beauty by Cecil Beaton on sale for $7,500 dollars, but you can also see it right here in all of its #MeToo-ness (its just weird to say that someone reminds you of “a shy child” and also that she has “a sensual mouth” – scratch that, let’s just not say “sensual mouth” anymore ever).  The point of this is that I wanted to see if I could find any books on Tilly Losch, and I immediately found not only a very valuable book that mentions her, but also the exact page where she is mentioned.  This is very convenient, but I have found myself less apt to browse when I am reading a digital book.  This can be good from an efficiency standpoint, but as I think most people who have researched know, some of the best finds come through browsing.  Had I looked at Losch and left the book, I would never have known about the entry for one of my favorite figures of early 20th century entertainment, Irene Castle, where Beaton not only comments that her face is “as wicked as a marmoset’s,” but also notes that it is acceptable to find her beautiful ever since “slightly pointed breasts” came back into fashion.  That might seem like useless information, but trust me, no Irene Castle trivia is ever useless, is just has not been effectively used yet.

Above, a marmoset. Below, Irene Castle, living her best life

When thinking about the issues that arise with digitization of sources,  I keep coming back to the fact that digitization makes the sources something new – not quite internet, not quite hard copy.  In a way, removing these digitized volumes from their tangible selves also removes them from some of their context.  Having grown up with the more curated collections at physical libraries, the digital repositories can seem a bit random, at the same time as their vast breadth of knowledge is appreciated.  This “wild west” aspect of it can be a bit scary – there are fewer authority figures, which means fewer barriers to entry, but also fewer people to ask for help.  I also worry that the ease of access can make us willing to accept inferior sources, in the same way that the closest restaurant can often seem to be the best option if one is hungry enough.  I think some of this latter concern comes from my own prejudices – when I was taught how to research, the book reigned supreme, and the internet was not wholly to be trusted.  As a hybrid of internet and book, digitized books occupy a powerful position – they have the authority of a book, but the freedom of the internet.  This puts the task in our hands – we have to ensure that when we adapt to new technologies, we use that technology to become more curious and adventurous, but not more willing to settle.