Books as objects?

May 20, 2006

As I wait to hear about job interviews that I have recently had, I keep busy reading a plethora of library-related blogs. T. Scott has a very cogent post on Kevin Kelly’s “Scan This Book” in the Sunday Times Magazine article last week.  

This is a topic that I am interested in and many in the library/Google world are interested in and yet, not a lot of interview questions address it in the way to open an in-depth dialogue about it. It is a complex issue.

Books. On a recent job interview I was questioned about my enthusiasm regarding the book as object  vs. the content of the book. I replied that it depended upon the content and the book. Very clever, eh? Not really, no.

I was ill-prepared for the question. After working for so many years with rare books and developing an appreciation for fine bindings, illustrations and the hallmarks of provenance, I imagine I do give the impression that I consider the book as object more important.

However, it is not always so.  As Scott points out in his blog entry, many of the electronic journals, the “born digital” materials can remain digital and well they should. That doesn’t mean that we scan a 16th century copy of Vesalius’ de Humani Corporis Fabrica and discard the original. The content of that particular book is key to the revolution of medicine in understanding the structure of the human body. The title translated is On the Fabric of the Human Body. Also, the book has incredible illustrations (after Titian, the illustrator has never been named to my knowledge) that provide another avenue of discovery. If one takes those illustrations and the content, what does one have? A book. A book that is valued as an object and one that is valued for content.

So, Google can scan texts and we can search them. A universal library may or may not be realized before I die. It will not replace the convenience of the object of a book. Portable (well, de Humani Corporis Fabrica wasn’t portable but….); no electronics necessary for access and annotatable.

I had the privilege of taking care of two editions of Vesalius’ work. Both in contemporary bindings, blind-stamped pigskin, with lovely 17th century bookplates and ownership marks. I can’t imagine giving up the option of using the physical object in place of the digital one.

I love this illustration. The folio version is quite impressive. The screen view, not so much.


Vesalius. de Humani Corporis Fabrica. 1543

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