AE Monthly

Articles - November - 2005 Issue

An Interview with Terry Belanger of the Rare Book School,<br>Recipient of $500,000 MacArthur Award

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Next we asked about the digitization of books. Digitization promises to make the contents of millions of old books, once available only to those with access to rare book collections, accessible to everyone. However, some librarians are concerned their hard copies of books may be considered irrelevant, and ultimately, perhaps they will be so deemed as well. Technology can be totally disruptive to the worlds we find familiar. As someone who appreciates the physical book as much as its contents, and who works with librarians regularly, you might expect Terry Belanger would not approve. If so, you would again be wrong. He very much favors the process, but with the caveat it should be in addition to, not in replacement of, the original formats.

Asked about digitization, Mr. Belanger describes it as "an enormous plus. The goal of providing the widest possible access to materials new and old is and has been at the heart of American librarianship for more than 150 years."

Still, he goes on to say, "In our enthusiasm for digitization, however, we must be careful not to throw out the baby along with the bathwater. Substitutional formats are just that, and we need to ensure that future generations continue to have access to the original materials, even after they have been put into electronic form. We have no business handing posterity photographs or photostats or microfilms or CDs or computer files of the complete run of, say, the New York Times, with the explanation that any of these formats has relieved us of the burden of preserving original copies. Every generation needs its own songs; every generation needs its own originals.

"This being said, I'm not sure we need to preserve as physical artifacts all of the several hundred runs of the George Smith/Thackeray Cornhill Magazine that currently exist in American libraries. We need to work out a national plan for the long-term survival of a reasonable number of original copies in their original format, advertisements and all."

A reasonable enough proposal, though we suspect he may have stepped on at least a small hornet's nest in library circles by suggesting a cooperative national plan for preserving antiquarian publications which hints that some copies might be superfluous. Mr. Belanger declined to take sides in another controversy now swirling around digitization: the dispute between Google and copyright holders over digital copying of old, out-of-print books that are still under copyright protection. Google would like to make such books digitally available, while some of those holding copyrights are vehemently opposed, even if the books are long since out of print. Says Mr. Belanger, "I'm just a tourist on this one."

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