[Humanist] 22.597 how have we acted on revolutionary suggestions?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Mar 6 07:17:00 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 597.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 05 Mar 2009 09:23:51 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: revolutionary suggestions

Serious proposals were put forth by musicians of the Russian 
Avantgardes, for example by Arsenii Avraamov (composer of the wonderful 
Symphony of Sirens), to destroy all traditional musical instruments, 
since the world had utterly changed. Similarly with the technological 
revolution of which the computer was part, at the end of another great 
defeat of sinister forces. In his review of Fremont Rider's The Scholar 
and the Future of the Research Library (1944) -- a book for which the 
reviewer claims epochal status -- William Jerome Wilson thus describes 
Rider's revolutionary proposal regarding books:

> In brief the new proposal is to print by micro-photography on the
> back of the usual 3 x 5 catalogue card the text of the work that is
> described on the front. The device is almost childishly simple, but
> its possibilities are revolutionary to contemplate. Unless for
> sentimental or other reasons the library wanted to keep it, the
> original printed book could now be thrown away. Gone at a stroke is
> any need for binding, labeling, shelving, and storing the original
> book. Gone is the whole complicated system of call numbers by which a
> book is found - or all too often not found - on demand. Now, as soon
> as one locates a wanted item in the catalogue, there also is the text
> on the back of the card. For all practical purposes the catalogue
> becomes the library, and every person who consults it has the
> equivalent of a "stack permit" - that most cherished and valuable of
> all library privileges. (Isis 36.1, 1945, p. 84)

In both cases we can be very glad the suggestions were not acted on, but 
also in both cases we can glimpse in the fervour of revolutionary 
passion excitement at something new, or perhaps more accurately, 
something old renewed and transformed by technical invention.

And we can ask ourselves this: to what degree, and with what sort of 
materials, under what conditions, has digitization encouraged us to do 
what Rider had envisioned? Who here has switched what sort of materials 
from paper to bits, then put the paper into the recycling bin? Under 
what circumstances do we keep both, or "print off" something once 
digitized for some temporary purpose, then toss the printed version once 

In my own case, I've digitized the entire shelf of photocopies I had 
transported long distances since my doctoral studies and disposed of it 
all. Two large flat-screens, without the flicker that used to bedevil my 
  perceptual equipment in the days of CRTs, allow me to read long 
articles on screen. I'll print off articles I really want to read but 
need by the physical presence of paper to be reminded of them, 
positioning these printouts around the house to make the encounter with 
them unavoidable. At the same time my rate of book-buying has increased, 
since books really are a different matter.

Sorry for the jumble of anecdotal experiences. But please do compare and 
contrast. Have we been doing this sort of thing long enough to generalise?



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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