thoughts from the Past’s Digital Presence

Here I am at the Past’s Digital Presence conference at Yale (gorgeous campus, wonderfully multidisciplinary crowd). One of this morning’s sessions apparently had a lively debate on Google Books — I say “apparently” because I was not at it but ah, the magic of Twitter. I had a thought on it at the time but it really didn’t compress well into 140 characters (oft-revised, failed attempt).

So here’s the story as I got it from the fragments: a flap covering up a scandalous part of a circa-1900 book is not in the Google-digitized version; the original text is revealed. (Why? Flap treated by Google as unimportant, or as an impediment? After a century of use the flap fell off? Who knows?)

Which got me to thinking about the revealed (implicit? explicit?) choice here: that the text of the book — in contrast to its history or context — is the important thing to be preserved, possibly the whole of its value.

Which is, I think, an easy assumption to have as we swim in streams of digital texts, streams where “platform-independent” is a good thing, streams where content and presentation layers can be separate (and that’s a good thing too). Indeed, digital texts can seem not to have a history, in that they do not tend to accumulate visually apparent marks of their use, and often the marks they do accumulate require special technical skills to see. (And when they do accumulate obvious history it can badly break paradigms — what was that controversy the other year when revision-history information in a Word document revealed classified information? People’s surprise indicates that they had a paradigm which was broken. Similarly, things like CommentPress or Copia or Sidewiki or Wikipedia, which make histories and marginalia obvious, are striking in part because of that feature.)

All of which is to say: we have a blind spot for the non-textual content of books; we tend to think that the textual content is the content. And I wonder if Google thought about this when doing Books. And I wonder if their blind spot is more severe than the norm, as I expect Googlers’ text consumption patterns are even more geared toward the digital than everybody else’s these days.

My cryptic notes tell me that somehow this issue came up in a talk on digital curation afterward, but alas, they are too cryptic for my current caffeine level…

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