Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

I know right now that I am partly subject to the enthusiasm of the new convert in seeing my object of adoration everywhere I turn, but truly, it seems that everywhere I turn these days I see the landslide toward a total digitalization of the world of the humanities.  Like a landslide, it may have looked a long ways off at first, but its upon us now, and rumble has become a roar.   As I said in this previous post, I think we’re a long way past a print plus world and we better figure out how digital tools, either simple things like e-books or complex tools and methodologies associated with digitalization, are going to change what we are doing with ourselves and our students.  A few rumblings:

1. Robert Darnton announces that the Digital Public Library of America will be up and running by 2013.  Darnton, an advocate of public digitalization efforts that will prevent private entities like Google from controlling access to information, has spearheaded the effort to bring together the digitalization efforts of libraries around the globe.  According to the DPLA’s website, the purpose of the the DPLA is focused in the following ways:

Many universities, public libraries, and other public-spirited organizations have digitized materials that could be brought together under the frame of the DPLA, but these digital collections often exist in silos. Compounding this problem are disparate technical standards, disorganized and incomplete metadata, and a host of legal issues. No project has yet succeeded in bringing these different viewpoints, experiences, and collections together with leading technical experts and the best of private industry to find solutions to these complex challenges. Users have neither coherent access to these materials nor tools to use them in new and exciting ways, and institutions have no clear blueprint for creating a shared infrastructure to serve the public good. The time is right to launch an ambitious project to realize the great promise of the Internet for the advancement of sharing information and of using technology to enable new knowledge and discoveries in the United States.

2. Appearance of the Journal of Digital Humanities:  I already mentioned this yesterday, but I’ll go ahead and do it again.  It seems to me that Digital Humanities is coalescing in to a force in academe–rather than a marginalized crew on the ragtag end–not unlike the massive changes that occurred in humanistic studies after 1966 and the advent of deconstruction and its step-children.  In my estimation the change may be even more massive–and perhaps more painful and more exciting–than those earlier changes since deconstruction did not essentially change the tools of the trade–we still read books (and gradually included film, pop-culture, and other media) and we still wrote papers about them.  While deconstruction may have been a more sophisticated and nifty looking hammer, it was still basically a hammer.  Digital Humanities is changing humanistic work at the level of the tool, creating houses without hammers.

3.People Who read e-books read more books than those who do not--A new Pew Research Center study suggests the following:

a survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that e-book consumers in the U.S. are reading over a third more books than their print-only customers. According to the report, titled “The Rise of E-Reading,” the average reader of e-books says he or she has read 24 books in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by non–e-book consumers.

Overall, Pew found that the number of American adults who say they have read an e-book rose to 21%, compared to 17% reported just a few months ago in December 2011. That jump comes following a holiday season that saw a spike in the ownership of both tablet computers and dedicated e-readers.

I admit that I want to cavil a bit about this news.  It’s also been demonstrated that e-readers so far are overwhelmingly dominated by pulp fiction romances and mysteries, the kind of thing you can read easily in a day.  On the other hand, book selling and reading in general has ALWAYS been dominated by the romance and mystery genres, so that’s nothing new.

The same Publishers Weekly article points to a study saying that e-readers are poised to take off with a massive global spike.  We’ve heard this before, but….Well, I asked my boss the other day if I could purchase a Kindle so I could experiment with the Kindle library program.  I am over the edge and into the dark side of the abyss.

4. The New York Public Library opened up an amazing new database tool for the 19040 census–itself an amazing database just released by the U.S. government.  I haven’t totally figured out how to use it yet, but your can search for persons in the census, tag their location in GIS based maps of New York City and do multilayered searching of NYC based on the crowd-sourced effort at developing a digital social history of New York City.  According to this article in the Gothamist,

Kate Stober at the NYPL tells us it’s “more than just a research tool, we’ll be helping New Yorkers create a social history map of buildings and neighborhoods in the five boroughs. When you find an address, the tool pins it to both a 1940 map and a contemporary map, so you can see how the area has changed. You’re then invited to leave a note attached to the pin—memories, info about who lived there, what the neighborhood was like, questions… As people use the site, we’ll build a cultural map of New York in 1940 that will assist both professional historians and laypeople alike.” And that’s pretty amazing.

I’m especially fond of this article because it goes on to point out that famous recluse, J.D. Salinger was indeed living in plain site on Park Avenue in New York City in 1940.  You just had to know his first name was Jerome and have faith that there couldn’t be more than one Jerome D. Salinger’s in Manhattan.  I think the question for humanist scholars will be what responsible teacher of the culture, art, history, and politics, etcetera of America in the 1940s would not want to use this tool and insist that their students use it to.

It’s more than a rumble.

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Anthropodermic Bibliopegy: Books in a pound of flesh

Among the other advantages of Twitter–besides finding out what famous people ate for breakfast–I discover knowledge that I find both nauseating and compelling.  In his recent discourse on the history of the book at Messiah College, Anthony Grafton did not manage to get in to the arcana of book binding, else he may have filled us in a bit more on Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, a term I picked up via a tweet from the LA Times book review.  From the blog the chirurgeon’s apprentice: a website devote to the horrors of pre-anaesthetic surgery:

The process of binding books using human flesh is known as ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’. One of the earlier examples dates from the 17th century and currently resides in Langdell Law Library at Harvard University. It is a Spanish law bookpublished in 1605. The colour of the binding is a ‘subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana’. [1] On the last page, there is an inscription which reads:


The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma [possibly an African tribe from modern-day Zimbabwe, see below illustration]on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace. [2]

Although it seems macabre to our modern sensibilities, this book was rebound as a way of memorialising the life of Jonas Wright. In this way, it is similar to mourning jewellery made from the hair of the deceased and worn by the Victorians during the 19th century. It is a poignant reminder of the life that has been lost.

Poignant indeed, though I doubt I’ll be asking my wife if she would like a skin-covered book to remember me by.  The post goes on to note.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy reached its height of popularity during the French Revolution, when a fresh supply of bodies was always available. All sorts of books were wrapped in human skins, including a collection of poems by John Milton. One of the last known books to be bound in this fashion dates from 1893 and currently resides at Brown University. The binder did not have quite enough skin for the book, and thus split the piece into two – the front cover is bound using the outer layer of skin; the back cover and spine are bound using the inner layer of skin.

If you didn’t know better, you would think it was suede.

Gives new meaning to the idea of “Kindle Skins.”

I keep thinking about buying a Kindle.  But then, again, maybe not.  News of the Orwellian variety from NYTimes.

In George Orwell’s “1984,” government censors erase all traces of news articles embarrassing to Big Brother by sending them down an incineration chute called the “memory hole.”

On Friday, it was “1984” and another Orwell book, “Animal Farm,” that were dropped down the memory hole — by Amazon.com.

In a move that angered customers and generated waves of online pique, Amazon remotely deleted some digital editions of the books from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them.

The personal economy of Kindles: Or, “Say what????”

I admit I’ve been a little hesitant to buy a Kindle, not out of lack of interest or complete antipathy to e-books. Indeed, I’m kind of intrigued if not totally convinced. But the biggest thing stopping me has been the cost. When I realized this I just thought I should do a little mental calculating.

Professors aren’t as well off as people tend to think, but on the whole full-time professors–a diminishing breed–are still solidly middle class. My salary as a full professor with about 8 years of post collegiate education and 16 years of full time teaching experience is in the low 70s. And, to be honest, most professors, especially at small schools or third rank state schools make a lot less than I do. In general I make less than a high school teacher with similar experience and education; who, am I kidding, I make less than my plumber.

Yes, I’m griping, but I’m also realistic that this isn’t a bad life. I remember being thrilled a couple of years ago when I started realizing that I could afford to purchase hard cover books–it mattered not a whit to me that books were on their way out. Indeed, one of the reasons professors can be paid so little relative to their expertise and experience is that they are pleased with so little. Give me a book and four or five weeks clear of having to prepare for classes or other administrative work in the summer, and everything seems like gravy.

Still, I’ve hesitated on the Kindle. 400 bucks is at least an hour or two of my daughter’s prospective college education. Who knows, with interest I may be able to add an hour or two. And it makes me wonder just a bit about the business plan associated with dedicated e-book readers. I would be, I think, a prime candidate for an e-book reader. But on the other hand, I’m an absolutely atypical American when it comes to books purchasing. Most Americans say they buy five books a year and read four. My guess is the other sits on the shelf in order too look kind of impressive even though it’s never read. Reading as many as 12 books a year is considered being a dedicated reader by a lot of folks, and was the benchmark employed by the NEA in some of their recent pronouncements.

So let’s start with the typical American reading, or claiming to read, four books a year. For fun, I went to the Amazon web site. It’s not nearly as much fun a bricks and mortar store, but book lust may still be fed even online. I compared Kindle books prices to standard paperbacks, using the sale price for new books. I leave aside the fact that I could get the books much more cheaply via the Amazon sellers system. Let’s just be fair and try as much as possible to compare apples to apples, a new paperback versus a new e-book.

Roughly speaking I found that the e-books saved about three to four dollars on the e-book. I realize I could add to this if I considered shipping costs, but it’s not inconceivable that a person would buy four books at one time and have no shipping costs at all. Still four bucks. Not bad, you say. True. Who wouldn’t want to save four bucks when they can. This means that the average American book reader would save 16 bucks on the four books they read during the year–this is the best case scenario of assuming that all four of those books were actually purchased new instead of being borrowed from a friend–something hard to do with e-books–or borrowed from the library. Or shoplifted.

This means that it would take the typical American reader approximately…wait…I have to get my calculator. Yes, I wasn’t wrong. It would take the typical American reader about 25–that’s TWENTYFIVE!!!–years to pay off their 400 dollar investment in a Kindle.

But let’s be fair, there’s also a marginal cost of gas to drive the mile to Barnes and Noble, so let’s say it will take 24–that’s TWENTYFOUR!!!–years to pay off their 400 dollar investment in a Kindle.

Let’s assume that there are enough readers like me out there to sustain a Kindle investment. I probably buy about 25 books a year–whether I actually read them is another story. Many of them are hardbacks I get via Amazon resellers for a fraction of the original price, but let’s still go with the new paperback price, even though its more than I often pay for hardbacks in good condition. I won’t count the multitude of other books and journals I read or look at from the library, since, after all, I get them for free and I wouldn’t pay 400 dollars for something I now get gratis.

Assuming I buy 25 books a year and I can save 4 bucks a book–questionable, but let’s say it’s possible–I can payoff my Kindle in 4 years.

Now, I still have books on my shelf that I bought 30 years ago, and my parents still have books on their shelves that my grandfather bought and read 100 years ago. So far in my 20 year marriage we have gone through four computers and are on our fifth. That’s a new computer every four to five years. Can someone at Amazon promise me that I will get a brand new Kindle for free when mine wears out, or when I drop it in the lake, or when they upgrade so far that it can no longer read the e-book files which are created six years from now? Somehow I truly doubt it. This means that I’m likely looking at shelling out four or five hundred dollars every five years just to maintain my collection. That means the cost of my e-book purchase keeps increasing throughout the lifetime of the file, simply because I have to keep investing new money in order to maintain my e-books. (To be fair, this increasing cost will continue, but diminish if I maintain more and more books. But it will increase)

I freely admit that paperbacks have some similar marginal maintenance costs. A new book shelf every once in a while will cost me a 100 bucks–or 15 if I’m willing to have cinderblocks and boards–but on the whole, this cost is made up by the fact that I sell old books or donate them to charity, something I can’t do with Kindle books at all.

In other words, I actually think Steve Jobs is probably on to something when he says people don’t read anymore and so there’s no future in e-books. This isn’t quite literally correct, but it seems to me that the long term business model depends upon an extremely small demographic. People like me who read a lot of books, but also people like me who would be willing to shell out what is ultimately more money per book than the cost of a paperback.

And why exactly should I do this again??