Robert Darnton on why books are important

tags: books




To regular readers of The New York Review of Books and to those who've read The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (which has been translated into more than a dozen languages) and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1995), one of historian Robert Darnton's more recent titles came as no surprise: The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future....

Your lecture at the University of Memphis is titled "Digitize and Democratize: Libraries, Books, and the Digital Future." Care to give us a preview?

Robert Darnton: It may sound tendentious, as if the alternative is between democratizing or digitizing. But they're not alternatives. The two are complementary. The alternative is commercialization. My talk will deal very briefly with the history of libraries and books, but it will mainly discuss our present situation and where we're headed.

I think we're in a period of transition, and we all know the future is going to be overwhelmingly digital. But, meanwhile, analog printing is still going strong. So it's not that books are extinct. In fact, more books are published each year than the previous year, in the U.S. and Britain and many places.

The issue facing us today is one of access: How in this mixed world of digital and printed media are we going to promote the public welfare, the right of the public to access information? That may sound abstract and unreal, but it's very real, because there are a lot of commercial operations that want to make money by restricting access....



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