The Great Digitization and the Quest to Know Everything by Lucien X. Polastron

The Great Digitization and the Quest to Know Everything
Lucien X. Polastron
Inner Traditions (2009)
ISBN 9781594772436
Reviewed by Ali Neshati for Reader Views (9/09)


Lucien X. Polastron, French historian and author of “The Great Digitization and the Quest to Know Everything,” knows a thing or two about the perils the printed word has historically faced—one need look no further than his previous work, “Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History” to reach this conclusion. Despite its comparatively less alarmist title, “The Great Digitization” does not wander far from this theme, as Polastron argues that the emergence of electronic libraries poses a threat to the literary world far beyond what any outraged, torch-wielding mob might hope to accomplish.

In “The Great Digitization,” Polastron describes how a combination of dwindling shelf space and romantic notions about modernization have prompted traditional brick-and-motor libraries all over the world to begin “dematerializing” their collections of printed books. One by one, pages are digitally scanned and saved to disk, while the remaining physical texts are either (A) returned to their shelves, (B) donated to charity, or (C) discreetly trucked away to the nearest municipal dump. I’ll let you take a wild guess as to which of those occurs most often.

While Polastron is clearly a strong supporter of digital libraries, he is far from a starry-eyed idealist. Citing data from the National Library of France, he argues that government initiatives to digitize printed books have been both slower and more expensive than first anticipated. Nevertheless, advances in book scanning technology have transformed what was once a laborious human task into an automated process, and electronic library sites are starting to blossom all over the Web to the delight and convenience of bookworms worldwide. Despite these limited successes, however, book publishers are now crying foul over attempts to electronically duplicate their intellectual property and provide readers with unrestricted digital access to copyrighted works. (Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?)

It is important to point out that “The Great Digitization” is the English translation of Polastron’s original 2006 text “La Grande Numérisation.” Copious footnotes are thankfully provided throughout the book (some by translator Jon Graham and some by Polastron himself), which I found very helpful when trying to decipher some of the more obscure references contained within. However, even in its English form, “The Great Digitization” is unmistakably French. Take the following passage, for example:

“That some hidebound relic from the old school periodically lashes out with a reactionary article to titillate the younger generation, and to see what their insides are made of, is simply a fact of life. Generally, the author of such screeds will lay on the provocative notes quite heavily, and then will slip in a pinch of self-mockery at the time the dish is served.”

Phew! While I will fault neither Polastron nor his translator for such linguistic molasses, let’s just say the reading can be slow at times.

Though a large portion of “The Great Digitization” is devoted to Polastron’s musings on broad social issues such as international copyright law, freedom, globalization, and the strangely compelling geopolitical soap opera that is library administration and management, he also has a few things to say about the effects of digitization on the individual level. “Y a-t-il une pensée après le papier? [Is there thought after paper?]” Polastron asks, predicting changes that will occur to our thought and behavior patterns as we transition from flipping through printed pages in books to scrolling and clicking through hypertext-filled computer screens.

In summary, I found “The Great Digitization and the Quest to Know Everything” a fun, fascinating read. Its unique blend of history, politics, and law make it an excellent choice for fans of nonfiction. Highly recommended.

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