I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been lost in Google Books. Okay, not literally. We don’t have the technology yet to physically enter into a virtual geography of Google Books, but I can say that I’ve been overwhelmed lately by the sheer volume of materials available to my eyes and fingers. Tara’s most recent post about the Wellcome Collection’s Exquisite Bodies has peaked my interest. I had planned a completely different blog post, but after reading Tara’s discussion of the benefits of close proximity to such wonderful collections, I started to think about my own experiences of late — lying in bed with a laptop poring over an endless number of digital documents from the Victorian era. Complete volumes of Punch, medical texts about railway injuries, treatises on telegraphy, Dickens’s complete correspondences, complete volumes of Wilkie Collins’s lesser-known fiction, etc, etc. Google Books has completely changed the way I do research, and I don’t even have to leave my apartment.
I know digitization of texts has been discussed endlessly on the web and in academic circles, so I don’t want to repeat the same old, same old here. But I am curious about one thing. Let me formulate it as a direct question — am I a bad scholar for finding enjoyment in the wonders of Google Books? I know I’m not because I approach both digitized materials and dusty old books with the same critical scrutiny. Yet, I can’t help thinking that I’m not performing the duties of a scholar through my frequent perusal of Google Books.
In all things, I try to avoid the old, tired argument that we have lost something in the digital age — that the aura of the scholar’s life dimishes with every hour not spent in a library or special collections room. I certainly have access to real books, and old ones too, but somehow I just prefer Google Books and other online collections. Most recently, for example, I’ve been fascinated with the College de France’s digitized collection of Etienne Jules Marey’s documents and photographs.
In essence, I guess I’m curious about the affect of digital archives. Yes, the aura of special collections — real books, real prints — is an amazing experience, one that I always feel deep in my nerdy academic bones. But, for me, the wonder and curiosity of Victorian texts is the same whether the books are found on library shelves (or passed over a counter by a special collections librarian) or in Google Books. My biggest worry is that academics have begun to hide the fact that digital collections can be incredibly beneficial to our research. Google Books hasn’t become a guilty secret has it? Academics have enough guilt as it is, so I’d like to state right here, without guilt, that I love Google Books! It excites my intellectual curiosity. There’s no postmodern waining of affect in my apartment.
That said, real, dusty, crumbly books are really cool too. I just might go to the library this afternoon…