Alas for the paperless office. Weep for the fragile archive.

Farewell, obscure objects of desire, an article by Matthew Reisz in the Times Higher (19th January 2012) reports a British Academy conference on open access academic publishing.

Alice Prochaska

It attributes some interesting views to Alice Prochaska, principal of Somerville College, Oxford, who notes that libraries and archives have invested huge resources in digitisation projects to make collections openly available and to protect fragile manuscripts from handling. Yet, Prochaska alleges, far from discouraging visitors, this had produced exactly the opposite effect, since scholars inevitably wanted to see the originals. Presenting a digital version of a rare object, perversely, increases the extent to which it is likely to be handled.

This tale reminded me of a talk I attended many years ago, by a senior executive in a telecoms company, who related his experiences of working virtually, at a time when this was unusual. His two premises were: “I used to have a paperless office, but I couldn’t find space for all the paper”, and “I used to work from home, but I couldn’t cope with all the travelling”.

Perverse as these ideas seem, they made perfectly good sense when explained. His paperless office was made possible by a variety of (for their time) new and exciting software systems. These enabled him to create many interesting new types of document, which he could not resist printing and storing. His home working environment, complete with email, videoconferencing etc., enabled him to be regular and informal contact with many more colleagues around the world than would ever have been the case had he sat in his work office, protected by his assistants. And so he felt he wanted to get on the plane and meet them face-to-face.

I have told this story several times, with the point that this was an early take on the effects of these technologies; as they become familiar, we will become happy with paperless environments and online relationships. But Prochaska’s points make me think again. As well as having a reputation as historical scholar, she has worked with the National Archives and the British Library, and latterly been librarian of Yale. I think we should seriously take her assessment of this paradoxical effect of digitisation.

Karl Popper, as long ago as 1945, wrote of the ‘abstract society’, in which “men practically never meet face-to-face; in which all business is conducted by individuals in isolation, who communicate by typed letters or by telegrams”. Although he regretted the isolation which this might bring, he did not see it as all negative. He saw it as releasing people from the ties of family and local community, and allowing formation of relationships beyond a local area. While the Internet has brought much of this to pass, it seems that he, like the rest of us, may have underestimated the strong desire to hold a physical document, or be in the same room as a physical person. Perhaps the need for the physical will not decline as quickly as enthusiasts for the digital world contend. If so, we will have to cope with these sorts of paradox for the foreseeable future. And archivists will still have to worry for their fragile treasures.

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