Digital Media

Posted: May 13, 2008 in Media, Technophilia

In a former career, I was a librarian, or more precisely, a media cataloger. Although I cataloged pile upon pile of books (fiction, nonfiction, humanities, etc.), my niche was music (scores, LPs, CDs, DVDs, etc.) and books about music. It was a fascinating job in many respects, a large part of which was converting old card catalog entries into digital files for on-line catalogs (a process called retrospective conversion), which meant I looked at a lot of old materials, many of which date back to the early part of the 20th century and some even earlier. Inspecting and describing those materials gave me a fairly narrow, bibliographical sense of publishing practice spanning over one century. During that time, some things changed while others remained largely unchanged. The LP, analog cassette, and VHS tape each came and went in progressively briefer spans of time. Yet other media were introduced but never adopted by the public. Despite its failing sales, the CD is by now a venerable standard that has yet to be fully displaced by something better. (The CD is perhaps in the process of being displaced by MP3s and other digital media, but they’re certainly not better in any respect other than their portability and ability to be copied, and thus infringed.)

Other venerable standards, including the book and the musical score, are still going strong despite challenges from a variety of wannabes. However, forward-looking content managers, including publishers, archives, and libraries, are in a race to digitize the gargantuan backlog of books and scores published over the past four centuries. The first such project is probably Project Gutenberg, which was founded in 1971. Although it boasts over 100,000 titles thus far in a variety of languages, I suspect that it will be overtaken in terms of number of titles (if it hasn’t already) by Google Books and a variety of virtual libraries created and being added to by research libraries. It’s still unlikely that digital media will be adopted any time soon by pleasure readers and practicing musicians. It’s just not much fun curling up with a Kindle or laptop loaded with the latest great American novel, and reading and annotating music from a screen is still far inferior to the printed page. Still, digital media are a terrific tool to researchers, academics, and some industries, such as law and medicine. Keyword access and extensive hyperlinked reference notes make the process of finding information much faster than older research styles undertaken in the card catalog and stacks.

The drive to get as much material scanned and digitized as soon as possible has been a considerable technical hurdle, at least until devices such as this:


This baby can turn book pages and is reported to be able to scan 1500 to 3000 pp. per minute while unattended. Companies and universities with deep pockets can buy a few of these and chew through yards of books (as library holdings are often measured) in almost no time at all. Of course, there are other considerations beyond simply creating digital files. Although folks may not always recognize it, librarians are all about providing access, and that means describing and cataloging the media, whether a book, CD, magazine, or digital scan. That requires a lot of man hours.

The information glut produced by having so much content, both old and new, available at our computers has done little to stem the decrease in readership for books, newspapers, magazines, etc. I’ve considered the waning of the typographic mind and the rise of the pictorial mind in the past. As with all media, the effects of embracing new forms and abandoning old ones have consequences that few care to contemplate and that are frankly difficult to anticipate or observe except with the advantage of considerable hindsight. For example, we still don’t fully understand the awesome effect of TV, which has been in wide use for over half a century.

Some cultural critics believe that American-style democracy can’t function without an informed and engaged citizenry. Yet everything about modern culture points to the swarming masses disengaged from public life and instead hunkered down in the media bubbles housed in their living rooms and dens (and their ridiculous SUVs, which increasingly resemble rolling living rooms). But as with most cultural shifts, no one is purposely causing this to occur. Rather, it’s an unintended side effect of the tools and technologies we create for the dual purposes of entertaining ourselves and conducting business.

  1. Caligula says:

    I agree with you about the constant entertainment. You really don’t have to talk to anyone anymore. Just check out the social skills of young kids today. Reading is definitely dying among the masses. We are going back to an oral culture. Pre literate people told stories, danced, played music, etc. My students can’t spell basic English words. Their vocabulary is also very small. Not one of my 10th graders had ever heard the word “freight” before. The younger generations will never have as much “deep” knowledge as we do. At 36 I am an ancient seer compared to my students. The generation gap is so wide and is becoming wider by the day, the hour. This is one of the more intelligent blogs. You should check out “Dark Ages America”.

  2. Brutus says:

    I had the same experience when I was a teacher. One HS student actually had the guilelessness to ask “What’s a noun?” I’ve read Dark Ages America, and I sometimes comment at Morris Berman’s blog, which is in my blogroll.

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