Digital paper

As libraries go digital, paper books still have a lot to offer

At Simon Weckert Google Maps hacking, a work of performance art, a man pulls a small red wagon filled with 99 cell phones through Berlin. Drawing on the nostalgia for Radio Flyer Cars and globes of my childhood, the play seeks to disturb Google maps and take stock of the aggregated data by causing a virtual traffic jam. I remember carrying stuffed animals and favorite books around the block in my toy wagon, and traveling to my parents’ birthplace by tracing a finger across the world to a non-existent Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union).

Technologies like Google Maps have reshaped our lives, from the way we navigate to the way we stay informed and work. Librarians like me face challenges in maintaining traditional means of accessing and disseminating information to our users while embracing innovative media.

We appreciate the value of analog (printed books, manuscripts, maps, globes) and digital resources like Google Maps, databases and digital archives. One format captures the history of institutions in general and libraries in particular. The other allows for more equitable and experimental access. Yet being a print advocate can be a thankless task.

Students and their teachers increasingly rely on electronic library resources. When libraries closed during the pandemic, they were replaced with digital spaces. Yet what is lost when entire libraries are brought online?

Technology vs time experience

The value of printing has already been challenged by technological innovations. At the turn of the twentieth century graphic discs were to replace written novels and plays for speech. In the middle of the century, Microcards will revolutionize publishing and copyright; microfilm would allow large-scale reproduction of original materials. In the 21st century, low-circulation printed books and high demand ebooks are used as reasons for acquiring more and more digital content.

What libraries rarely take into consideration, however, is the extrinsic (artificial) value of their circulating holdings rather than their intrinsic (informational) value. Also, lost in the debate is the value of time: the time taken to browse the shelves, select a book and read it and see the traces of its use.

By exploring the history of the university library collection in our archives, I consulted dozens of old accessions catalogs. These catalogs allow researchers to follow the growth of the library on a daily and annual basis. Important information can be gleaned from the titles of the collection, such as their bibliographic elements and the history of their provenance.

A University of Toronto Library Acquisitions Register indicates who got hold of a hard copy of a book, giving some idea of ​​the history of the book.
(Ksenya Kiebuzinski), Author provided

One can discover details about the history of the library such as books donated by Queen Victoria, Frederick I (Grand Duke of Baden), the Meteorological Office in London, Trinity College Cambridge or, more locally, the British historian Goldwin Smith of barn (now part of the Art Gallery of Ontario). This information cannot be found online. This requires a meticulous research of half a million manuscript entries over a period of 50 years.

Social history of the book

The provenance of the books fascinates researchers. Personal libraries provide a glimpse into the lives of collectors, as do individual volumes donated to our institutions. These books often include physical traces associated with the original owners, such as signatures, dedications, and bookplates. We may see margins or doodles, newspaper clippings, photographs, or flowers pressed inside as bookmarks. These findings help us map the social history of a particular volume. Unlike new blank digital editions, older or donated books show signs of use that go beyond a circulation statistic.

Our university library, for example, has a book on 19th-century Russian theater with the following note pasted: “Bring a bottle of champagne, darling, and have fun.” (Saffy is doing a science project at poly-wollege and won’t be there!) ”

A note inside a book on Russian theater kept at the Robarts Library tells not only the story of the book, but also the life of one of its masters.
(Ksenya Kiebuzinski), Author provided

Other library books reveal ownership. The University of Toronto Library has a brief of a Russian revolutionary (bound with several brochures by Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky) bearing the ink stamps of the Russian branch of the Socialist Party in Quincy, Mass. These examples of traces – a playful note inserted in a book or an old property stamp – lead us to wonder how much fun we had while Saffy’s absence, or curious about the history of the Russians in Massachusetts, and how the book went from Quincy to Toronto.

These notes and stamps can be documented as notes in printed materials or online catalogs for rare books (not always), but traces of ownership – beyond an occasional autograph – are rarely recorded for the material. in circulation. While many libraries may have the same edition of a title, each copy may reveal something different about its former owners or readers.

Preserving the history of the library

In 2019, two graduate students in literature at the University of Virginia (UVA) worked frantically to save their library’s card catalog, which was to be discarded during a renovation. They discovered cards containing notes on the physical volumes that were not in the online catalog. The catalog also documents changes in publishing and reading preferences over time. It reveals how the AVU’s collection was reconstructed following a fire in 1895 that largely destroyed it, and what volumes were kept during the university’s founding years before the fire.

Likewise, the University of Toronto Library lost most of its collection as a result of the great fire of 1890. Although our card catalog has been discontinued, we have retained an original shelf list (a set of catalog cards for books classified by number) for material acquired from 1890 to 1959. This will allow researchers to study sixty- ten years of history of our library.

How many stories and discoveries are still to be told by flipping through these maps and browsing our book shelves? The Semantic Web and Linked Data Initiatives will surface in library collections around the world, but machines cannot discover what is hidden in our card catalogs or lost forever when printed copies are discarded or no longer collected.