January 29, 2009 - 12:52 PM
With the digital age making it increasingly more possible to write a 10-page research paper from the comfort of one's own home, is it possible libraries have become obsolete?
The answer to that question is, in my opinion, a resounding "no." After I spent an evening eyeing books that are almost as old as this country, I'm convinced that, in some cases, seeing something in person rather than on a computer screen makes all the difference.
It's the same reason people still want to go to Paris even though they've seen a million pictures of the Eiffel Tower and have practically memorized its well-known silhouette. There's something about standing directly beneath it to take in its magnitude that's more awe-inspiring than any JPEG image.
My honors college colloquium, which studies the many newly-invented objects of the 18th century, met in the Special Collections reading room above the Knight Library foyer. We were surrounded by shelves of books that were more than 10 times as old as we were, and several of these books lay open for us to peruse. A small group of us leafed through a giant book of Latin text and exotic Eastern images from the 1600s, laughing at Europe's misconceptions of Chinese and Indian culture. Across the room, another group looked up old-fashioned words in one of the first English dictionaries in existence. Other groups found traditional fables and a French writer's descriptions of the microscope, a then-breakthrough in science.
Seeing these books online would have amused me, but there's something about fingering the thick pages bound together between huge panels of leather and vellum that makes the 18th century feel so much more real and accessible. I felt as if focusing solely on this book and on the people who might have rifled through it 300 years ago just as I did now might actually take me back three centuries. I could read what these people read, and in turn I could think with their old-fashioned minds rather than my modern one-if only for a moment.
Reading a PDF version of an 18th century book is a little bit like renting an IMAX movie on DVD and watching it on a 27-inch television. The magic and sense of place is all gone when the original form is lost.