Transferred illusions

I’ve just written a review of Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland’s Transferred lllusions: digital technology and the forms of print for the journal Alexandria. This is a modified version:
The so-called ‘digital transition’ has been at the forefront of the minds of many library / information specialists over the past few years, as the certainties of the world of print give way to the changes and complexities of the digital age. Deegan and Sutherland do an excellent job of guiding us through some of these issues, in this scholarly but accessible book.

It comprises six essentially discrete chapters, each of which could be read alone as a primer on its topic. It is well-written, with a clear flow illustrated by numerous asides and examples. It takes a historical perspective, relating ‘new’ issues to what has gone before, and is well-referenced; it would be an excellent source book for academic courses in this area. The authors state the aim that it would contain both ‘informational’ and critical/reflective writing, and generally succeed well.

The book is, as the authors say, “about the forms and institutions of print – newspapers, books, scholarly editions, publishing, libraries – as they relate to and are changed by the emergent forms and institutions of our present digital age”. It deliberately does not deal with blogs, social networking sites, and the like. Some may consider this a weakness, given the often-stated potential of such media to complement, or even compete with, the more traditional forms of communication. However, it does give the book a clear rationale, and allows a logical argument to develop.

The first chapter, ‘After Print’ considers the survival, surprising to some, of print-on-paper, and reflects on how long it will survive, and what may replace it. The authors foresee the disappearance of printed reference works, lament the World Wide Web as a degraded from of Ted Nelson’s vision for true hypertext, and conclude that ‘far from dying, in its old age print is casting a long shadow across the digital generation’.

Chapter two deals with news sources, citing the commonly held fears of the death of news in print, and noting that during the 1991 Gulf War less than 9% of Americans kept up with the issues primarily through newspapers, compared with ten times that proportion at the end of the second world war. They suggest that using personalised newsfeeds, approximating to the long-heralded ‘Daily Me’, is perhaps not such a great deviation from reading a newspaper chosen to reflects one’s own social standing, political views, etc., and lament the problems involved in the replacement of hard-copy files of historic newspapers with microform or digital equivalents.

The third chapter focuses on editing, described as a “cultural work”, and the way it is changed in a digital environment. Ranging widely, it touches on metadata, text markup and encoding, and other new issues which concern the digital editor.

The next chapter is concerned with new modes of publishing: such things as electronic journals, self-archive repositories, e-books, print-on-demand books, niche publishing and self-publishing, and so on. The authors’ decision to avoid include blogs, micro-blogs, social networking and the like means that this chapter has a distinctly calming air, compared with more radical reflections on this topic.

Chapter five, entitled ‘The Universal Library’, gives an excellent potted history of the development of libraries, and reflects on how they will adapt to the digital age. Along the way, we get such treats as the estimate that the recorded output of humanity from the days of the Sumerians comprises “at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films, and 100 billion public Web pages”. The authors remark that this is a ‘woeful underestimate” of the numbers of books at least, and conclude that that there are 15-20 billion pages of printed book materials available now. Digitisation projects are pondered and criticised, with few punches pulled: of one digitisation exercise, the authors comment that “the daftness or ignorance that led to the suppression of such vital material from this particular … project is staggering. It is also a useful warning about putting our faith in digital libraries”.

They are also concerned about how order, one of the major benefits that libraries bring to the enormous scope of written material, is lost in mass digitisation efforts. Quoting a tart definition of the Internet as “a library assembled piecemeal by packrats and vandalised nightly”, they clearly worry that the same fate awaits a library which converts itself to digital form using current best practice. While users are supposed to wonder “why can’t libraries be more like the Internet, filled with cool information that we can all have for free ?”, the authors think that the more appropriate question is “why can’t the Internet be more like libraries, organised, classified, and with powerful filters in place ?”

The final chapter ‘Durable Futures’, considers preservation issues, and laments how much has already been lost through lack of appropriate archiving, as well as technical problems. From this, they move on to considering how the ways in which material is preserved influence how it is used, and summary some concerns, now becoming familiar, about preferences for skimming and annotating, rather than sustained reading and argument.
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Overall, although most readers will find something to disagree with, this is an excellent book. It sits well alongside the volume edited by Cope and Phillips’ The future of the book in the digital age as an insightful account of where recorded information is going as the digital transition takes hold.

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