(A lightly revised version of this post has been published on Medium.)
The explosion of free PDFs of scholarship published before 1922 facilitated by Google Books as well as Archive.org has had a strange, perhaps unexpected, effect on the nature of brand new scholarship that is fully under copyright. It has fostered the tendency among students and scholars alike, at least in the Humanities, to assume that if a book or article is not online and not freely available then it is not published at all.
Many will be quick to guffaw at this statement but I increasingly experience its truth in the academic world. The more scholarly publishers try to lock down their rights to publish their books and, by extension, attempt to squeeze as much money as possible from the institutional subscribers to their online collections (some of whom buy the paper books too!) the more free resources become attractive, used, and ultimately (to librarians) worth cataloging. In other words, the more traditionalists demand their rights to tradition (to maintain norms of finance, prestige, etc.), the more the young and hungry look for ways of getting around tradition.
There is little one could do to stem this tide, even if one should want to. Consider the following debate. In a 2007 essay on Google and digitization in the New Yorker, Anthony Grafton (Princeton) concluded with the following statements:
Sit in your local coffee shop, and your laptop can tell you a lot. If you want deeper, more local knowledge, you will have to take the narrower path that leads between the lions and up the stairs [referring to the New York Public Library] … The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books.
In these overtly religious tones (cf. Matthew 7:13–14; Luke 13:24), Grafton warns young scholars not to take the wide, easy path (lined with cappuccinos) which leads to certain destruction (or at least second-rate monographs). But, as he may well admit five years later, no one is heeding his dire warnings of hellfire. It’s not that libraries aren’t being used anymore—my own university library at Georgetown, Lauinger, is constantly buzzing with activity—but libraries are now supplements for what is available online. Rather than being the narrow gate of the long-suffering initiate, the library has switched roles with the the coffee shop (literally, in my case), as a place for meetings, conversations, and private study, while the “real” books, articles, dictionaries, the fabric of university education, are all kept online. This is simply the triumph of praxis over theory, and it is now becoming just as true an axiom for scholars as it has been for our students for years.
As a theme explored at length already in 1998 by James J. O’Donnell in Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, the victory of the pragmatic over the prescriptive is a necessary consequence of a media revolution on the scale of the internet: “What today’s partisans of the book need to master is the pragmatics of the new” (88). Thus, even in 1998 (before Google!), O’Donnell knew that free communication, free finding aids, and free information are a determining force in both social behavior and human cognition. And it’s not that he wasn’t, or isn’t today, a fan of librarians. On the contrary, he was, and is, the librarians’ librarian, a self-described addict of reference systems. Furthermore, he is no hippie freedom fighter: he understands keenly that one of the cultural values of the library lies in its “exclusivity” (now called “curation”): that is, “its discerning judgment that keeps out as many things as it keeps in” (43). Grafton, in a 2001 review of Avatars, “Error Messages” in Boundary 2 (28.3: 191–205), did an injustice to O’Donnell by characterizing him as an absolute inclusivist and a postmodern: “But to keep our morality and our morale intact, we need to refuse to undergo the full transformation that O’Donnell recommends” (202). Instead, O’Donnell already foresaw and undercut Grafton’s line of moral criticism: “Our educational institutions embody our most pretentious self-images” (122).
O’Donnell’s postmodernity—or his aesthetic of the archive, or whatever one might call it—is rooted in the necessary, not in the theoretical. True, there is a tone of self-deprecating prescriptivism in Avatars: “We teachers do not automatically deserve a future” (123). However, O’Donnell was more prescient than anyone could have imagined at the time, especially on the subject of global search and the destabilization of academic publishing:
Publishers hope that I will still be willing to pay for special pieces of information in the future, but I wonder if they are not too optimistic … The thing that I will be willing to pay for as the oceans of data lap at my door is help in finding and filtering that flood to suit my needs. (90, emphasis original)
These forces threaten our public and research libraries as nothing has in decades. Today, libraries can buy an encyclopedia and put it on the shelves for anyone to use. Tomorrow, they may have to pay a large fee to get the encyclopedia, then be charged an additional fee for every use of the resource, be forbidden to let anyone not a member of the university community have access to it at all, and be required to give it back if they stop paying an annual fee. (95)
This was 1998! If the value of a book on technology and the Humanities lies in its remaining relevant in the next generation, like any good piece of scholarship, then Avatars has succeeded in spades. Not unlike the still-relevant work of Marshall McLuhan—the subject of a recent captivating biography (2010) by novelist Douglas Coupland—O’Donnell’s Avatars speaks clearly about basic cognitive issues between humans and the printed word that will only cease to be relevant (maybe) when the printed word itself disappears.
Another area of Avatars’ relevance, and one which Grafton rightly emphasizes in his 2007 New Yorker article, is the importance of the democritization of information, education, and knowledge through the internet. This is true, not least, for the non-Western reading public, where the “poverty of books” (in Grafton’s words) is often concomitant with the poverty of the populace. In a chapter on the future role of Classics, his own discipline, O’Donnell writes:
The classics were chosen to be Greece and Rome, and those two cultures remain yoked together in our curricula while others are kept out … It is also emphatically true that Greeks, Syrians, Jews, Arabs, and others created in the near east a large and vibrant culture of extraordinary diversity, but one that, like the Semitic cultures [themselves], has resisted satisfactory study until quite recently, owing to the variety of competences not ordinarily inculcated by our schools that it requires. (107)
In this regard, we can reasonably fast-forward within O’Donnell’s own oeuvre and note that his most recent book, The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (2009), begins not with Alaric’s sack of Rome or the Vandals beating on the gates of Hippo, but with Cosmas Indicopleustes, a sixth-century “Nestorian” (or East Syrian Christian) author in Alexandria, writing in Greek, who recorded his travels along the Red Sea coast of Africa, down to Ethiopia and even, ostensibly, all the way to Sri Lanka. Cosmas appears also, briefly, in Avatars (62) and on the book’s corresponding website as “the only real flat-earther in history?”, but Ruin devotes substantially more space to this quirky and compelling eastern Christian. The inclusion of Cosmas signals a reorientation of thinking about the end of the ancient world—namely, that looking at the “end” may not be helpful at all considering the vibrancy of the eastern Christian and Islamic cultures of the early Middle Ages. Even to use the phrase “Middle Ages” can be misleading, since this label is traditionally significant only in the West as the period between the Classical World and the Renaissance. (The epithet “Renaissance”, as O’Donnell notes on Avatars p. 105, is a modern coinage, and in any case to be “re-born” presumably means one must first have died.) Let me connect Cosmas to our modern digital democritization in a tangible way: due to the relative scarcity of the French critical edition of Cosmas’ only surviving work, the Christian Topography, and the specialist nature of modern scholarship on it (both usually available only in western research libraries), people living in today’s Ethiopia or Sri Lanka may not be able to read about Cosmas unless these books are made freely available to them online. The fact that such technology is ready and willing to do just that, and yet may not be employed out of fear of what disruptions it may introduce into western scholarly rhythms of credentialing and prestige (and, perhaps especially, publishers’ profit margins), is frankly outrageous.
There are two reasons why I have meditated here on the remarkable prescience of Avatars of the Word: first, because I just assigned it as homework for the first week of term in my class on “Byzantine Renaissances”, in which we’re studying the history of the book (particularly in Greek) from Alexandria to Venice; second, because I was recently involved in the creation of a website for the support of students of Syriac language and literature. This site is hosted at Dumbarton Oaks, and we are grateful for the encouragement we have received from this (my home) institution.
When my colleague Jack Tannous (now of Princeton) and I conceived it, we intentionally left out references and links to any published material still in copyright. This was deliberate, first, to show what a wealth of Syriac material is available for free on sites like Google Books and Archive.org (along with BYU’s CPART, Hathi Trust, and other repositories). All this material lacked was proper organization: as Grafton has pointed out elsewhere in the New Yorker, finding specific editions on Google Books can be a real chore.
Second, we intend for the site to be a provocation to those who would seek to limit the distribution of scholarly materials in order to increase their own financial gain. In other words, the more the site becomes canonical (which depends, of course, on us making it really comprehensive and useful), the more people will wonder why X or Y book is not linked on the site, and the demand that X or Y be made available for free will hopefully grow. In fact, we’ve already received requests for certain expensive reference books to be referenced or linked (in their online form, behind a pay-wall). However, this would defeat our purpose. Not only do we recognize that it is now a de facto truth that, “If It’s Not Online and Free, Then It’s Not Published,” we also prescriptively want to drive that message home to scholars, universities, and publishers alike, so that eventually the de facto truth may become de jure as well. To quote Avatars of the Word once again:
The most effective change is wielded by those who do not expect to create or manipulate a closed system, but instead recognize that effective change takes place in open systems, where the accumulation of collaborative actions generates unexpected harmony. (88)
Eventually, perhaps, our site will be linked in major library catalogues as a “real” online resource, and certainly the Dumbarton Oaks domain name will help with that case. But in the meantime, we hope to help solidify (for Syriac at least) the reputation and status of born-digital scholarly works as important contributions to the Humanities—in fact, as necessary contributions, if the Humanities is going to move forward apace with the expectations of our students, readers, and colleagues in other disciplines.
Let me offer a few more thoughts in conclusion. First, this year’s college freshman were born in 1993/1994, the first year the internet saw massive adoption. Older scholars, like O’Donnell, Grafton, even Jack Tannous and myself, were trained in a world of books. The longer we were trained in that world, the more attached we are, by nature, to books. Students from today forward will not be able to remember a world without Google. Younger students and rising scholars are simply growing up with different cognitive assumptions. At some point it becomes a barrier to their education to insist that their mode of training be the same as ours. Second, our Syriac site is a testimony to the power of the internet for scholarly research. You can find in a few clicks Syriac passages which would take at least 15 to 30 minutes to locate in physical books in the best eastern Christian research libraries in the world. There’s a speed benefit: why would you not want to work more efficiently if you could? Third, the site is an embodiment of the cliché that information longs to be free. Your access to Syriac texts should not be a function of having attended Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, etc. Credentials do not equal access. You should be able to read this material if you’re in Houston, Atlanta, Cairo, Damascus, Tehran, or anywhere in between. At our most rhetorical, we are trying to repatriate texts and manuscripts taken out of the Middle East (often long ago and under a dark cloud) back into the Middle East: we are consciously liberationists as much as we are curators. The internet can, to some degree, allow these Syriac Elgin Marbles to go home, to the people whose ancestors wrote these texts. It is hard to imagine why any barriers to this scenario, where the entire world benefits on the back of the internet, would be allowed to remain in place.
(Thanks to Jack Tannous for reading a draft of this post and suggesting improvements.)