Re: Electronic archiving and IIS talk

From: Andrew Odlyzko <amo_at_RESEARCH.ATT.COM>
Date: Fri, 8 Sep 2000 07:07:00 -0400

Chris Armstrong's message raises once again the important issue
of interaction of technology and culture. Electronic publishing
does threaten the idea of a single definitive version of a
scholarly article. Is that a bug or a feature? There are simple
technical solutions (metadata, cryptographic authentication and
digital timestamping) that would let us preserve the features
of our current system. However, will we want to, since those
features are also limitations? We should not forget that those
limitations are artificial, imposed by the technology of print.
Here is a passage from "The slow evolution of electronic publishing"
(available at <>):

  Gutenberg's invention of movable type did prove to be revolutionary.
  Initially, though, it was an extremely conservative development [Cook,
  Eisenstein, Steinberg]. It did enable considerably less expensive
  production of large runs of books (as well as of indulgences). Still,
  it took considerable further development, technical, social, and
  economic, before the full impact of movable type became apparent. The
  first books had initial letters in paragraphs hand-colored, and were
  produced in ungainly folio volumes. There was also extensive
  resistance to print by scholars [Hibbitts1, O'Donnell], which included
  calls for banning the new technology. Many of the objections have a
  familiar ring to them (only trash was getting into print, books were
  not as durable as parchments, etc.). For a long time print was
  treated with suspicion. What is interesting is that many of the
  criticisms were serious one. Although this view is generally
  discredited, even some modern scholars (cf. [Eisenstein]) have felt
  that initially print reduced the variety of scholarly information that
  was widely available. (Setting the type for a book was much more
  expensive than copying the manuscript by hand, and it was only the
  large number of copies that could be printed at once that reduced the
  per-copy cost.) There were also more subtle effects. Scholars of the
  15th century were trained in the art of comparing a variety of copies
  of a treatise to figure out the mistakes of the scribes and thus
  discern the original words of the author. With print, that was
  impossible! A mistake made in typesetting would be propagated in all
  copies in that print run. Indeed, some of the mistakes that slipped
  through were egregious, as in the "wicked Bible" in 17th century
  England, in which the Seventh Commandment was rendered as "Thou shalt
  commit adultery" (p. 204 of [Steinberg]). Of course, methods (such
  as proofreading and printed errata) to compensate for such
  deficiencies were invented, and we have developed a culture of print.
  Scholars work with the mental image of an edition, a definitive work
  that stays immutable. Many of the objections to electronic
  publications (such as that of Quinn [Quinn]) are based on perceived
  threats to this model. Yet before movable type was invented, there
  were no definitive editions, and scholars lived in a much more fluid
  world. Electronic publishing removes the choke point that the step of
  going to print represented, and is likely to lead to a much more
  diffuse (and also much more effective) communication system. However,
  the habits developed over 500 years are not easy to break, which is
  why I am not astonished by the slow evolution of electronic

For those readers of this list who have a few spare hours, and access to
a good library, I highly recommend the book "Johannes Trithemius: In Praise
of Scribes, 'De Laude Scriptorum,'" edited with an introduction by Klaus
Arnold, translated by Roland Behrendt, Coronado Press, Lawrence , Kansas,
1974. Trithemius' tract, with the first version written in the early 1490s,
and the Klaus Arnold introduction, illustrate nicely the problems
scholars had in the transition to print.

Andrew Odlyzko

Andrew Odlyzko
AT&T Labs - Research voice: 973-360-8410 fax: 973-360-8178
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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