Book Lib / Dream Catcher

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I found it important and ironic that Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machine came into the world as a Janus-faced book (which the introduction to our reader id’s as a “codex.”  Cleaning off the real paper piles (after the digital drifts had been safely closed away) last weekend, I stumbled on this essay by William Cronon, who recently finished his term as president of the American Historical Association, an organization much interested in books (forever) and computing (more recently).  Echoing Walter Benjamin, a self-diagnosed and self aware bibliophile, Cronon offers an insightful meditation on how scholars (ok historians anyway) have not yet fully succeeded in extending the relationships we have with the curated collections of knowledge – embodied in bound volumes and physical  libraries — to the digital world.  Cronon, an early adopter and champion of ebooks and electronic preservation, does see the potential of expanding digital depositories and the incredible power of SEARCH.  But he also notes that the Romans’ invention of the codex, whose pages replaced ancient scrolls, “remains one of the most powerful random-access devices humanity has yet devised.”  As someone who routinely spends lots of time scrolling (and clicking) to find something in cyberspace, I appreciate his veneration of the physical book and his endorsement of the ease of finding and retrieving something quickly from it.  My physical books and manuscripts I work with are known to me and accessible to me in a way that searching and scrolling can’t quite equal.  At least not yet.

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