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Thoughts on Jerome McGann’s On Creating a Usable Future

Jerome McGann’s essay, “On Creating a Usable Future,” addresses the massive undertaking that is the NDPL (National Digital Public Library). This online research database, which since McGann’s initial writing has undergone a name change to DPLA (Digital Public Library of America), is tasked with being the go-to scholarly resource on the Internet. As the title of the title of the essay indicates, the future of scholarly research–like the seemingly inevitable fate of paper books, films, video games, and other media–is online. The challenges of such a task are many, but the benefits greatly outweigh the obstacles.

McGann specifies one of these obstacles in a question towards the beginning of his essay: “Who would have access to what, and how could the materials be engaged and perhaps repurposed?” (183) Differing communities–national and international–would have different objectives in this endeavor. The newer title of the database, DPLA, indicates that, like much of the Internet, America would have a larger influence on this database than emerging countries and global regions. This American influence would certainly influence which information is included in this “complete” database.

On page 185, McGann indicates another problem with NDPL (or DPLA–even the name shift is indicative of the shifting priorities of this undertaking): “book culture will not go extinct,” the author claims. “Human memory is too closely bound to it,” McGann claims. The books will still be there after they are digitized. I wonder how true this statement is. How many original copies of Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey still exist? None. That’s because the “originals” of the works were composed orally. Sure, someone decided to transcribe these timeless stories; the question is: how much was lost in translation? One version of the tales was decided as “the” definitive version of the text. This effect will happen with such varied works as Shakespeare’s quarto and folio editions, Walt Whitman’s vastly different 1855 and 1892 versions of Leaves of Grass, and even McGann’s own professed passion play, the works of Dante Gabriel Rosetti (McGann references his own online literary database creation, The Rosetti Archive, on page 188; this was a peculiar reference for me because I didn’t know to which Rosetti the author was referring: Dante, or his sister, Christina, or both. Very vague. McGann’s own database seems privileged and edited.). McGann claims that paper versions will remain; I’m not so sure these editions will all survive.

Despite the negatives of such a seemingly comprehensive online database of human knowledge and scholarship, the benefits to such a compendium do exist. Even if there were no quantifiable positives (access, speed, availability, convenience), the inevitable trend towards digitization is here. Barnes and Noble is digitizing with the Nook; Borders couldn’t compete in this medium, and they are now a bygone memory. Newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are increasingly marketed towards their online readers. Encyclopedia are now almost entirely online, and even still, most people access Wikipedia. Print publishing houses are increasingly becoming extinct. As McGann notes, scholarship, too, is increasingly trending towards online research sites. Out of thirteen sources for his article, McGann includes only three print sources; the rest are all digitized.

What does this online database mean for scholarship? How will NDPL/DPLA compare with JStor, Project Muse, and the unmentioned Google Scholar? Will this new construct finally supplant Wikipedia as the go-to site for quick knowledge–or does “complete” not necessarily mean “preferred?” There are many questions. The future is, of course, uncertain. Any predictions, classmates?

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11 Responses

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  1. Christopher Grimm says

    Either you guys a.) Really didn’t like my post this week. b.) are all waiting for something more “interesting”( Where ARE the other two posts? Were we not supposed to post? Did I miss a “message?”), or c.) None of the above!

    It’s cool, fellow ENG 703ers; It’s almost over! Let’s dialogue about ANY of this week’s articles. I selected the McGann, because I understood it/ liked it best, but we can talk about any of the readings.

    “Bueller? Bueller? Is Ferris Bueller here?”

    • Kevin L. Ferguson says

      For real! I had promised not to comment on the blog until after (most) everyone else had weighed in, but . . . uh . . .

      The thing about “book culture not going extinct” caught my eye. As the comparison to ancient Greek oral compositions raises a question: are “books” what we’re studying/should be studying? Or are printed “books” just one (among many) ways of transmitting the things we study? In other words–are ebooks a new thing to look at or just another form of the thing we’ve always looked at?

      In syllogism form– oral tales : printed books :: print books : ebooks ?

      • Dana Choit says

        Was it not the same set up for posting comments this week? Sorry if it was!

        It seems like the main question of the article was What is the difference between digital and print copies of work? and what affect does that have us?
        As Chris pointed out the example of the oral tale becoming print with Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey and we now move from print to digital, I don’t think that each transcription is the equal. Going from oral to written, things can definitely be (as Chris mentioned) “lost in translation” or in transition from one to the other. Oral tales can change over time or from one individual to another, like a the old game of “telephone”. However, the transition from print to digital copies essentially takes a picture of what is already there. In a way it preserves the original text further. While a print copy may get worn out, illegible or thrown away- the digital copy remains. As McGann says the original is still there as well. The question of “book culture going/not extinct” is interesting. I think it works both ways depending on how you look at it. In one sense “book culture” can be more alive than ever with the adding of digital devices like the Nook, Kindle, etc. More people are reading through such technology. In addition, as I said before, the print themselves will live on in digital form. The extinction of “book culture” may also be occurring in the loss of the “book” part – the printed work. The question of actually getting rid of the original because of this new technology could at some point occur . Maybe our children’s children will think “you had books on paper!?” and everyone will read everything in digital form and publish new works only digitally. At least for historical purposes this probably wouldn’t be the best thing.

        To answer your question about the difference in information between the print and the digital, I’m not sure that there is a real difference in what we are reading- I don’t really think there is a “new thing” to look at…but I think the fact that it is digital may change how we read it or possibly interpret it.
        I have a Nook (got it last summer) and early on I found it very strange to use and did not really like reading on it. I thought it was fun to play with but preferred holding a paperback in my hand. Now, I am very much used it and I think its extremely convenient and I don’t have issues actually reading on it and I don’t think that I would necessarily enjoy reading a good book on paperback more so than on my Nook. However, If I were to read for school, either a class I was enrolled in or teaching, I would want to use paperback. I would want to write in the margins, take notes, etc. and although the nook gives you the ability to do all of these things- highlight, write notes- I would prefer to do so physically on paper. I can’t really say why, I might feel like I’m more able to get all my thoughts out with writing them.. but then again maybe I just need to get used to these features as well?

  2. Christopher Grimm says

    P.S. Happy Mother’s Day to Jo, and any of the other moms in class.

  3. johnjparente says

    Here’s my excuse! Five days to read and two days to post does not work for me like I guess it didn’t work for some others here. Maybe because the weekend is the worst time to post on a blog? I kind of know. For me, the reading should have been done by Tuesday night with posting open from Tuesday 11:59pm. With this plan in action we would be able to have a group conversation spread out between early Wednesday and late Sunday night.

    I could have posted on Wed. and Thurs. every week with ease, but once that Friday work whistle blows, I didn’t see five minutes on a computer again until late Sunday night.

    I think discussions between educated professionals deserve time. We need time for discourse, sharing experiences back and forth, and going off on relative tangents. I do not think two hours in the conference room shows anything except that teacher’s choice and loudest voice SOUND the best if you keep your BS detector set real low.

    • Kevin L. Ferguson says

      I think it’s been a problem all semester . . . especially as posting on “Friday night'” gradually crept to “Saturday morning” and commenting by “Sunday night” crept to “Monday afternoon.” Making the blog posts due by Tuesday night would have allowed for more time during the week for comment conversations (although, of course, then we would have the complaint of “not enough time” to read and post on the next readings from the people assigned to blog the day after class). Maybe the solution is no Monday classes?!

      But more importantly–what about McGann?!

  4. Travis Lamprecht says

    In the beginning of this semester, Professor Ferguson encouraged us to print out the readings for class instead of bringing in our laptops because he felt that there’s nothing like holding the actual papers in our hands. I feel the same way, however, as your post and McGann’s article demonstrates, we are rapidly moving away from print mediums to digital mediums. This may seem old fashioned to students today but I’m disinterested in kindles and other reading devices. I have to be fair though and understand that when it comes down to it, there really isn’t a difference between reading a physical book or reading a book on a screen. Just because I feel as if I’m more in-tune with what I’m reading because I’m physically holding it doesn’t really mean that I will understand its content better. The bottom line is, I have to adapt and so will everyone else.

    • Rachel Duso says

      I’m with you on the kindle thing. My mom begged for one, so I bought it for her birthday a couple of years ago. A couple of months later she asked for a case, specifically one that she could open like a book. I thought that was funny. I refused to get one for myself even though i liked the idea of it. What I did not like about it was the fact that I could not use it for school for textbooks, only for novels for a couple of English classes I took during my undergrad. I’ve heard that you can now get textbooks on the e-readers but I’m still not sold. A couple of weeks ago we discussed the fact that the Encyclopedia is not being printed anyone. Everything is changing, even something that has been in print for 244 years (–244-YEARS.html) I think we will lose a lot by going digital but it won’t all be lost.

  5. Johanna Sanchez says

    I have to agree with McGann when he says “book culture will not go extinct…Human memory is too closely bound to it”. There is nothing better than having the actuall book in my hands, anxiously turning pages and the scent of paper. I received the orginal Nook 2 years ago for my birthday and I thought it was an awesome invention, until one day I walked into the library and suddenly missed the smell of books. Ebooks are convienient but I will always go back to books. I would think that students in schools are all about ereaders but in reality there are the select few who still prefer to read the actual book. Books will never die out, or at least I think they won’t.

    P.S. Thanks Chris 🙂

  6. mobrien says

    I would like to believe that “book culture will no go extinct,” but I think that is only true as long as there are people alive who still aprreciate the print. Just as we all might be “more in tune” with print texts as Travis states, the younger generations of students are more in tune with digital media. So, while I think that print is not yet extinct, it may be on its way to the endangered species list. Just as the oral tradition faded away, the same might be on the way for print. Maybe not in our lifetime, but soon thereafter, as the newer generations continue to phase out print and relay more on the digital materials they have access to.

  7. johnjparente says

    “In the near future, digital technology will supplant print-based technology as the medium of scholarly publication.” (McGann 184)

    It is easy for me, because of my experiences in a masters and as a technology teacher, to play chicken-little. But beware, it is even easier for my colleagues to cast me as some kind of a ‘techy heretic.’

    My plea is to anyone who transcends teaching and gets the oppurtunity work on improving digital scholarship, please do not do it for anything but teachers and students. Children first! Also, I idealize collaborative initiatives such as the work McGann uncovers in this article and I resent individual initiatives and believe they parallel 1) teaching to the test, 2) blood-sucking (for money) of educational systems, and 3) the me-first slacker attitudes of computer programmers and teachers only there for the paycheck.

    I think the NDPL is a great project, as Wikipedia once was, but we will see how strong and where our “institutional will,” (as Kathleen Fitzpatrick coins it) is in a few years.