Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age
by David M. Levy
Recommending this book, a self-described love letter to documents, to those with what I imagine are the interests and tastes of most readers of D-lib Magazine, is almost too easy. David Levy, currently with the Information School at the University of Washington, attempts to broaden our perspective on documents in the digital age by examining their evolution and fundamental roles in human life. The result is a highly readable book full of both interesting snippets (when and why did the vertical file replace pigeon holes and what did a certain prominent librarian have to do with it) and useful analysis (what do we now perceive as 'authoritative' information and how do those physical clues translate to the digital realm). Not all of the analysis will be appealing to all readers, particularly the later parts of the book, which go into the 'sacred quality' of documents and their relation to religious longing. Nevertheless, it will be an unusual reader who doesn't enjoy much of the book and encounter something both interesting and useful.
Levy begins the book by examining a deli receipt for a tuna sandwich, not quite an illuminated manuscript or great work of literature, and uses it to point out the underpinnings of the current role of documents in society. We learn about the evolution of writing surfaces from the expensive and difficult such as clay and animal hides, to the cheap and easy such as register tapes. We learn about capitalization, decimal points, and the relatively recent use of zero in the West. Most importantly, he uses the modest little receipt to introduce one of his central points -- that documents are fundamentally story tellers and that the sense of the story will depend heavily on a great deal of pre-established social context and convention. Here we have a record, or a witness, of a financial transaction, a witness understood by all of us. It would, for example, be possible to attach it to an expense report with little or no further explanation. But replace that receipt with some sort of digital document and the picture changes considerably. How would we recognize it for what it was? How would we attach it to our expense report? And so on.
Later sections of the book put other areas of the 'digital dilemma' in the same sort of historical and social context. When worrying or enthusing about the future of the book we are advised to be a bit more precise about which class of books, exactly, are under discussion. They do vary, and once we get past the current physical similarities it may be a mistake to consider them all as one kind of entity. When contemplating the future of the library we are advised to remember that the library of our common conception, publicly funded and dedicated to broad availability of information, came into existence only in the middle of the 19th century.
Running throughout Levy's book is the theme of documents as talking things, as tools we use to throw our voices in specific ways, making them louder or more persistent, to paint pictures, to make music. In moving forward into the digital age we are creating whole new classes of talking things, new tools and new servants with which we are not yet familiar and whose conventional use will first require a great deal of preparatory groundwork. Levy does not attempt to get into the details of that work, but in lengthening and broadening our historical and social perspective, he does a good job of laying out the fundamentals of the problem.