Sunday, March 11, 2007

Technology and Invisibility

Technology boosters are fond of telling us that soon everything will be at our fingertips, that technology will transform an informational landscape that is riddled with nooks, crannies, dusty inaccessible archives and unlabeled boxes into one marked by easy to search open stacks.

When universities were first digitizing their card catalogs they typically began with recent acquisitions and worked backwards. When I was a graduate student at Yale in 1990 the electronic catalog went back to around 1975, if I remember correctly. I wrote at the time time that we might see a (digital) divide emerge between those of us who still used (and knew how to use) paper card catalogs and those who only used the new electronic system (then called ORBIS, I think). The latter, I speculated, would end writing papers that would never reference anything published before 1975.

In the interim, most libraries found the funding to fully digitize their catalogs but now we are into an age of the entire digitized text, not just the digital listing of physical texts. In a 11 March article in the New York Times KATIE HAFNER examines the impact of the fact that while lots and lots of stuff IS being digitized, many things are not. The latter, she reports, are at the risk of falling off our collective radar as "not digitized" consigns things to an unfindable status due to (1) resources not being put into preserving them (2) resources not being put into making them available (why spend money on keeping the archive open if you can put some of the collection online?); and (3) the more readers become dependent on the digitized material, the fewer people will have the skills, time, energy, motivation to examine the undigitized.

At least back at Yale, the reader of a paper could easily notice what was missing because nothing in the bibliography was dated before 1975. In the future, both the writer and the reader may have very little appreciation of what is missing.

If wisdom consists in some part of knowing what you don't know, might technology be a threat to wisdom?

In my project file is a folder titled "Do a History of Blindness about Blindspots"


  1. Many academic librarians teach a research class to undergrads and cover this "blind spot." But unless professors require research in print/non-digitized works students will only research in the quickest, easiest way - online.

    And you should hear from Law School librarians about what their students consider "research." ;-)

    Tricia-CASBS Librarian

  2. Keep up the good work.