Little by little, I am becoming aware of a tendency in our culture to downplay everything that is before the Internet. Wikipedia and Google are so convenient that we tend to ignore older sources of knowledge. And now that libraries are trashing many of their old books and periodicals and replacing them with computers, there is a real danger that many of the old sources that used to pass for knowledge are slowly disappearing.
For example, I have many books that pre-date the ISBN code. When I read one of them, I have some difficulty describing the book to GoodReads.Com because the likelihood is that there is no reference to the edition I have. And when I try to sell the books on Half.Com (which is owned by eBay), I can’t enter the book because it lacks the ISBN code used to identify the edition. It’s actually keeping me from reading my essays by Sainte-Beuve or many of the hundreds of Oxford World Classics I own in hardbound. Ever since I got in the habit of reviewing everything I read, I tend to hesitate with some of my older editions. Just in front of me, for example, is a 1926 Alfred A. Knopf edition of Arthur Machen’s The Canning Wonder. I could review the book on Goodreads only if I answer a questionnaire about the edition. If I wanted to sell it on Half.Com, I’d be out of luck.
Most at risk is the history of our civilization based on original archival materials that date back to the Middle Ages. Fortunately, the Europeans are willing to spend the money (in most cases) to protect their history. But what about the Americans? All it would take is for some idiot like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul to sniff at supporting libraries, and millions of words of our country’s history would go by the wayside.
But what about Google Books, you might ask? It is a noble effort, but only a small percentage of old books have been scanned. I collect the works of Sir Richard F. Burton (no relation to the actor). He’s not exactly a popular item, but he is one of the most exciting explorers and travelers of the Nineteenth Century. I can find Burton’s Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, but only Volume I has been scanned. The same is true for his Exploration of the Highlands of Brazil. Oh, the books will still be around, but they will be fabulously expensive. (On the other hand, I have been able to find some Burton titles on Gutenberg.Com that I could never afford to buy in print—so the argument cuts both ways.)