7.0191 R: Battle of the Books (1/38)

Wed, 15 Sep 1993 18:14:40 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 7, No. 0191. Wednesday, 15 Sep 1993.

Date: Wed, 15 Sep 1993 08:28:22 -0500 (EST)
From: jod@ccat.sas.upenn.edu (James O'Donnell)
Subject: Battle of the Books

Robin Alston's *Battle of the Books*' appearance on HUMANIST reminds me of
the fifteenth century abbot Johannes Trithemius' publication in print form
of his treatise *de laude scriptorum*, usually read as a defense of the
manuscript culture against the printed book. In fact what both have in
common is that they express vividly what is already a nostalgia for a
*culture* that is threatened, that is, for a particular form of social
organization that, if it does not adapt itself wisely to new
circumstances, may very well dry up and blow away in the new environment.
The Benedictine monastery that Trithemius cherished is still with us, but
remarkably diminished and limited in its powers. If we insist, we as
scholars of the humanities can certainly go the same way. At the same
time it must be remembered that attachment to the present order of things
is attachment to a technology that floods the world with Danielle Steel,
Tom Clancy, and the National Enquirer, and actively discourages publishers
from keeping serious scholarly materials available in print. The hope
that new technologies may lead to some improvements is not a priori absurd.
One point to make, perhaps. Alston points to the inability at
present of e-libraries to incorporate even universal bibliographical data
much less universal texts. Quite rightly, but perspective must be
maintained. The vast majority of books in our libraries are of recent
production: as near as I can tell, half the books in a major university
library came there in my lifetime, and a much higher percentage during
this century. A hundred years from now, under a waterfall of
e-information, the percentages of materials on deposit of various kinds
will be something like this:

rare, historical, uncatalogued, non-e-accessible: small
printed materials e-accessible in one way or another: large
e-materials: vast

That does not change the responsibility to maintain and protect those
rarer items, whose value will surely increase. But it suggests that the
totality of the information environment will as heavily emphasize
electronic materials then as it emphasizes now print materials (over

Jim O'Donnell
Classics, U. of Penn.