There’s been an article going around on Facebook lately. Mostly, I’ve seen it being reposted by other English grad. students. But I think it really applies to all of us in one way or another. The article is about marginalia, and about how the digitization of books and the move to electronic texts means losing this precious gem.
Scholars, and even grad. students such as myself, have spent a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of e-books. The cost. The emotional attachment. The issues with varying editions. Even the inability to take notes on e-readers. Now academics, both in the university system and without, are realizing how much more we’re losing, and trying to find a solution.
A recent Chronicle article discussed the problems not only students, but scholars are having using e-readers. If a scholar is trying to publish an article and is citing a text she has on a Kindle,for example, then…how does she cite it? On the Kindle, there are no page numbers. Instead, Amazon assigns specific passages “location numbers.” On e-readers like Sony’s where you can change font sizes, things get even more complicated. There have been suggestions that this issue can be solved by numbering each paragraph of a text, for example. But that hardly seems like a perfect, or even desirable, solution.
The other big problem goes back to one I discussed in my previous post: the inability to annotate an e-book. If we can’t annotate e-books, we’ll be losing not only our own ability to take notes and connect with the text in that (very deep and, for some people, very necessary way), but the amazing legacies that authors and other famous figures often leave us through their marginalia. If Mark Twain had only read e-books, we never would have known what he thought of all the books he read! But, because he was able to write in his simple, primitive, antiquated paper books (which are totally wireless!), we have been able to learn a lot about him and his time period through his own voice.
Is this kind of information really worth losing? This isn’t just about emotional attachment anymore. This is the potential loss of real facts and historical information we’re talking about here. And, even if e-readers that support writing are developed, there seems to be much less of a guarantee that note-taking on an e-book will be as prevalent as on a regular book…or at least not as commonly kept. Even if people do start creating digital marginalia, what are the chances it will survive after their death? It’s so much easier to erase type than it is even a pencil mark in a book. And so much easier to drag something into the digital trashcan than it is to throw something you’ve taken to bed with you into the fire and watch it burn.