Books and Libraries in the Digital Age

author: Robert Darnton, History Department, Harvard University
published: March 20, 2014,   recorded: October 2008,   views: 3158

Related Open Educational Resources

Related content

Report a problem or upload files

If you have found a problem with this lecture or would like to send us extra material, articles, exercises, etc., please use our ticket system to describe your request and upload the data.
Enter your e-mail into the 'Cc' field, and we will keep you updated with your request's status.
Lecture popularity: You need to login to cast your vote.


Perhaps because he is a historian rather than librarian by training, Robert Darnton regards the vast ocean of digital information that civilization has begun accumulating with relish rather than anxiety. Darnton delves into European archives to find raw material, boxes of cast-off “ephemera,” for his stories of how people lived hundreds of years ago. No wonder he believes “it’s important to preserve as much as you can because you don’t know what will turn out to be significant.”

In conversation with David Thorburn and audience members, Darnton lays out why he finds more promise than peril in rapidly expanding digital collections. He first owns up to the tactile pleasures of archival history: the sensation of opening a box full of manuscripts, dirty hands, the smell of old paper, and literally coming “into contact with vanished humanity.” He cherishes the drama of such research, as well as the finished, weighty products of this kind of work: the book. While the “tactile quality of books” is very important -- and Darnton describes holding up leaves of 18th century books to see bits of ground-down petticoat thread -- there are also positive dimensions to digital versions. For instance, when the British Library digitized Beowulf, it discovered several new words. But “one medium of communication doesn’t displace another,” he reassures. “They coexist.” Darnton himself is hard at work on a large-scale electronic book about books in the 18th century, comprised of layers a user can navigate, from essays on various subjects, to selections of documents in English, to the original documents in French. There might even be songs performed as they were sung in the streets of Paris 250 years ago. “We are in an era of creating new kinds of books, new kinds of reading and authorship.”

Darnton advocates “a total history of communication … by internet, by songs, jokes, graffiti -- by all of the media of any period...”and a corresponding expansion of libraries’ duties. But he admits concern about the preservation of digital documents: “We migrate them through various formats, and they’re not like books. They could disappear due to inadequate metadata, or “lose a few 0s and 1s, and the whole document disintegrates.” He advocates keeping card catalogs, and making sure that all conceivable editions of books, manuscripts and research papers get digitized. He even supports preserving email. The “ephemera” of our times may serve as an entry point for historians of the future, and we should let the next generation find in the vast world of preserved data what they deem most significant.

Link this page

Would you like to put a link to this lecture on your homepage?
Go ahead! Copy the HTML snippet !

Reviews and comments:

Comment1 Patrick Burgess, May 30, 2021 at 3:16 p.m.:

In any case, this will be important at all times, because this is the main thing for human development. Even if you are not a student for a long time, you still read books or some kind of general education literature. I recommend that you visit the useful service, where you can study analysis on Flannery O'Connor's short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, it is very interesting to read in your free time to relax and escape from problems.

Comment2 Simona, March 13, 2022 at 11:48 a.m.:

Even if you are not a student for a long time, you still read books or some kind of general education literature.

Write your own review or comment:

make sure you have javascript enabled or clear this field: