As we prepare to continue work on our class Omeka project, I’ve been thinking—as I’m sure we all have—about what impact the digitization of these books might have on a larger scale. What does it mean to have such a large collection of marginalia? How might one best make it available online? And, perhaps most important, what purpose would such digitization serve?
I was still pondering this issue as I read “The Library Rebooted,” by Scott Corwin, Elisabeth Hartley, and Harry Hawkes. I have to admit, I found the article immensely appealing, if only because—unlike several of the doom-and-gloom pieces we’ve discussed—it attempts to provide answers to the conundrums that it highlights. Yes, libraries appear to have less value now than they did previously. Funding, available space, and reader interest are all decreasing, while journal prices skyrocket and books gather dust on the shelves. But rather than mourning the loss of a rosily-glowing past, Corwin, Hartley, and Hawkes turn their attention toward the future, encouraging libraries to rethink their operating models and innovate to better serve their users.
I will leave the merits of most of their suggestions for later discussion. For now, I’d like to look at two particular points amid their much larger arguments, which, for me, sparked new thoughts on the ultimate value of our Omeka project.
First, Corwin, Hartley, and Hawkes draw attention to libraries’ abilities to bring their “treasures” to the people through digitization, highlighting the British Library’s guided web tour of its most prized possessions: the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, Mozart’s notations on a piano concerto (6-7). In contrast, when encouraging librarians to “rethink the operating model” of their libraries, Corwin et al suggest that “keeping even infrequently loaned books on selves” is “outmoded” (8).
The driving force behind such a decision is the concept of user value. Transforming obvious treasures into an “engaging interactive experience” allows users to enjoy them digitally (and thus, to better recognize the library’s value), while getting rid of little-read books frees up room for more user-friendly spaces, such as “a lending library and areas for children, teens, and seniors” (6). In making such suggestions, however, these authors reinforce a controversial underlying judgment: namely, that the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci are treasures and the “infrequently loaned” books in the stacks are not.
I won’t quarrel with the first part of this statement (how could I?), but the second brings us back to those books in the NINES office with which we have been working this semester. These books have obvious value: historical, cultural, and sentimental. Each presents a microcosm of the history of reading, of book making, and of book culture throughout the nineteenth century. They give us a window into the past, into the lives of the people who wrote in them, and into the reception history of the authors in whose works the marginalia has been written. Such a wealth of meaning makes these works treasures in their own right, even if they spend most of their time on the libraries shelves collecting dust (and not bar codes).
We, who have spent a semester working with these books, presumably do recognize their value. We are, however, also English graduate students—book-loving by nature and also a very a small subset of the general population. It seems to me, though, that our viewpoint is one worth sharing. It also leads me to suggest that the goal for our project should not just be to digitize these books, but to do so in a way that allows us to convince the rest of the population—Corwin, Hartley, Hawkes, and all—of their value.
To do this, it will not simply be enough to post images of these books and their marginalia online because, as “The Library Rebooted” has shown us, such images will not be treated as terribly valuable. In order to engage a larger audience, we must show why these books—and their marginalia—are interesting. This would mean doing much of what we have already discussed in class: tracing the person, time, and place behind each note or doodle to give the book a history and a character; providing context for the newspaper clippings and letters tucked inside them; even offering a textual history of the book itself to highlight its value.
In order to reach a large audience, though, we would have to include this information in a more compelling way than tags or lists of metadata. Instead, we would have to follow the British Library’s example and make the presentation of our “treasures” an “engaging, interactive experience.” An interesting interface would allow us to draw in readers not already interested in the history of books or marginalia. Clear and comprehensive explanations of the materials would allow the digitized pages of these books to serve as educational tools, in addition to digital records.
Such a project is much bigger in scope that what we’ve done so far on Omeka. Quite possibly, it is far too big a project to undertake at all. Reading this article, though, it occurs to me that if we want to encourage people to “save the library,” so to speak, we have to show them why the library is worth saving. That does not mean just showing them the obvious treasures—rare manuscripts, famous first editions, etc.—but encouraging them to see the rest of the library’s holdings as treasures, too.