A Historian of Books,
Lost and Found in Cyberspace
Like many academics, I am about to take the leap into cyberspace, and I'm scared. What will I find out there? What will I lose? Will I get lost myself?
As I approach the edge of the World-Wide Web, I am seized with affection for the media of yesteryear: the lecture and the book. Is it not remarkable that both are still going strong on our campuses, after centuries of use, despite the advent of the so-called Information Age?
Much as I admire my younger colleagues, who splice computerized music and images into their lectures, I find it best to talk right at my students, armed with nothing more than chalk and a blackboard. I'm a historian, and when I work in the archives, I fill index cards with notes and sort them into shoeboxes, while all around me the younger generation is tapping away on portable P.C.'s. I love books, old-fashioned books, the older the better. As I see it, book culture reached its highest peak when Gutenberg modernized the codex; and the codex is superior in many ways to the computer. You can leaf through it, annotate it, take it to bed, and store it conveniently on a shelf. To read on a computer, you must squint at a poorly defined text on a cumbersome machine, and scroll through it, somewhat as the ancients did before the codex replaced the volumen in the fourth or fifth century.
Aside from their mechanical defects, computerized texts communicate a specious sense of mastery over time and space. They have links to the Web, and we think of the Web as infinite: We believe that it connects us with everything, because everything is digitized, or soon will be. Given a powerful enough search engine, we imagine that we can have access to knowledge about anything on earth—and anything from the past. It is all out there on the Internet, waiting to be downloaded and printed out.
Such a notion of cyberspace has a strange resemblance to Saint Augustine's conception of the mind of God—omniscient and infinite, because His knowledge extends everywhere, even beyond time and space. Knowledge could also be infinite in a communication system where hyperlinks extended to everything—except, of course, that no such system could possibly exist. We produce far more information than we can digitize, and information isn't knowledge, anyhow. To know the past, we must dig up its remains and learn how to make sense of them. Most people are content to leave the spadework to historians and to make their own sense from the books those scholars write.
Unfortunately, books, too, have their limits. Any author knows how much must be eliminated before a text is ready for printing, and any researcher knows how little can be explored in the archives before the text is written. The manuscripts seem to stretch into infinity. You open a box, take out a folder, open the folder, take out a letter, read the letter, and wonder what connects it with all the other letters in all the other folders in all the other boxes in all the other archives. Researchers have never even read the overwhelming majority of documents such as letters. Most people never wrote letters. Most human beings have vanished into the past without leaving a trace of their existence.
To write history from the archives is to piece together what little we can grasp in as meaningful a picture as we can compose. But the result, in the form of a history book, can no more capture the infinity of experience than Augustine could comprehend the mind of God.
In short, the traditional media have no greater claim to mastery of the past than the electronic media. But there is something unreal about such speculation. The vision of data bases or manuscript boxes stretching out to infinity provides no comfort to historians chasing themes through archives. Whatever their epistemological angst, such scholars have concrete problems to solve. In my case, I have dozens of shoeboxes filled with index cards, crying out to be transformed into a book—too many, in fact, to squeeze into a single book, too many even to get under control. That is why I contemplate the leap: I want to write an electronic book.
Here is how my fantasy takes shape—and it's just a fantasy at this stage, for I don't believe any such work exists, at least not in the discipline of history. An "e-book," unlike a printed codex, can contain many layers, arranged in the shape of a pyramid. Readers can download the text and skim through the topmost layer, which would be written like an ordinary monograph. If it satisfies them, they can print it out, bind it (binding machines can now be attached to computers and printers), and study it at their convenience in the form of a custom-made paperback. If they come upon something that especially interests them, they can click down a layer to a supplementary essay or appendix. They can continue deeper through the book, through bodies of documents, bibliography, historiography, iconography, background music, everything I can provide to give the fullest possible understanding of my subject. In the end, readers will make the subject theirs, because they will find their own paths through it, reading horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, wherever the electronic links may lead.
I realize that describing an e-book is one thing, creating it another. But the temptation to try is difficult to resist for anyone who has had the typical archival experience that I've described. Once, I managed to read my way through all the boxes of an archive of the papers of a French-Swiss publisher, the Societe typographique de Neuchatel: 50,000 letters, the only complete collection from an 18th-century publishing house that has survived. I also read most of the documents in two of the largest collections at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France: the Collection Anisson-Duperron and the papers of the Chambre syndicale de la Communaute des libraires et des imprimeurs de Paris, a Parisian booksellers' guild. Taken together, those documents give an amazingly rich view of the world of books in the Enlightenment, but it took me 11 summers and three winters, over a period of 25 years, to read them.
Not that I suffered. Neuchatel is a lovely city in good wine country on the edge of a lake behind a handsome range of mountains, and Paris is paradise. My research yielded several books and articles. But it left me with thousands of index cards that I have never used—and also with a feeling that I have not got across the full richness of my subject. The documents reveal not only what publishers printed, but how they decided what to publish; not only where the books went, but how they were handled by smugglers and wagoners at each stage along the transportation systems; not only who wrote them, but how the writers understood the enterprise of writing; not only what the king decreed to control the book trade, but how censors, police inspectors, bureaucrats, and spies collaborated in the work of repression. The material opens up new ways of thinking about the history of ideas, economics, politics, and society. It raises the possibility of realizing the ideal that the French call "histoire totale"—a total history of the book as a force in France on the eve of the revolution.
Easier said than done. In earlier efforts, I drafted a 100-page chapter about paper as an ingredient of books and left it in a drawer. I produced 75 pages on the book trade in the Loire Valley, and found it so loaded down with detail that no one would want to read it. I prepared a study of how a smuggler in Lyon opened a passage to the rich book country of the Rhone delta, another of how a bookseller in Besancon mounted an ingenious scheme to get around the ordonnance against piracy in 1777, another on the entrepot trade in Versailles, another about the life of a literary agent in Paris, another on the adventures of a sales representative (he spent seven months flogging books from horseback through most of southern and central France; the horse gave out in Loudun, where he bought a nag and had his wig refreshed, all of it detailed in his expense account). ...
I could go on and on, listing one promising subject after another; but I could not fit them into a book. There was too much to tell. Whenever I started a new chapter, I found myself pursuing so much detail that the stories ran away with me; I had to stop, undone by the fear of spending the rest of my life as the chronicler of the Societe typographique de Neuchatel—and of writing tomes that no one would read, even if someone might publish them.
The answer is an e-book. Not that electronic publication offers shortcuts, or that I intend to dump everything from my shoeboxes onto the Internet. Instead, I plan to work through the material in different ways, covering the most essential topics in the topmost narrative and including mini-monographs, along with selections from the richest runs of documents, in the lower layers. My readers will be able to help themselves to as much as they like in the portions they prefer and even to link my work with that of others in the burgeoning field of book history. An electronic book about the history of books in the Enlightenment! I can't resist. I'll take the leap.
Whatever becomes of my story, I hope it may be useful for others in similar situations. No two experiences are truly similar, I know. Few historians have enjoyed the luxury of working for decades in virgin archives. But everyone with a Ph.D. has experienced the difficulties of imposing readable form on intractable matter, and most Ph.D.'s know how hard it is to get a dissertation published as a book. The latter problem does not concern the unfathomable quality of the archives so much as the economics of publishing. Academic presses have cut back drastically on academic books, especially in fields where the monograph is deemed to be "endangered"—that is, virtually unsellable, whatever its intellectual merit.
The endangerment is so severe in some fields of history that the only escape seems to be a further leap into cyberspace. At least there is some hope of making a soft landing, because the American Historical Association has devised a three-year program, called Gutenberg-E, to promote the publication of high-quality electronic monographs.
Thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the A.H.A. has just announced that it will award prizes for the best history dissertations in six fields: Africa, colonial Latin America, and South Asia ( awarded in 1999); Europe before 1800 (to be awarded in 2000); and diplomatic and military history not primarily of the United States (awarded in 2001). The prizes—six will be awarded each year by a panel of distinguished scholars—will be $20,000 fellowships, which the authors are to use for converting their dissertations into electronic books—genuine electronic books, of the highest quality, which will make the best use of the medium. Columbia University Press will publish the books. The press, again with a subsidy from the Mellon Foundation, has been developing an electronic-publishing program that will provide a model for other publishers and other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.
Gutenberg-E is only a small-scale experiment. But if it succeeds, it may open a way for serious scholarship to expand on the Internet.
Whether or not I land safely on it, I am convinced that the Internet will transform the world of learning. The transformation has already begun. Our task, I think, is to take charge of it so that we maintain the highest standards from the past while developing new ones for the future. What better place to begin than with students now completing dissertations? Having spent their childhood with computers, they will know where they are going when they leap into cyberspace. I still stand on its edge, clutching my shoeboxes and whatever intellectual baggage that may keep me afloat, including some very ancient books, like Augustine's Confessions and The City of God.
Robert Darnton is a professor of history at Princeton University and is the immediate past-president of the American Historical Association. He is the author, most recently, of The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (W.W. Norton, 1995). A volume of essays about his work, The Darnton Debate: Books and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Haydn T. Mason, was published last year by the Voltaire Foundation at the University of Oxford.
This article first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education of March 12, 1999. It is republished here with the permission of
the author. ©Robert Darnton, 1999.
Last Updated: May 7, 2007