Books and Other Fetish Objects
By JAMES GLEICK
I GOT a real thrill in December 1999 in the Reading Room of the Morgan Library in New York when the librarian, Sylvie Merian, brought me, after I had completed an application with a letter of reference and a photo ID, the first, oldest notebook of Isaac Newton.
First I was required to study a microfilm version. There followed a certain amount of appropriate pomp. The notebook was lifted from a blue cloth drop-spine box and laid on a special padded stand. I was struck by how impossibly tiny it was — 58 leaves bound in vellum, just 2 3/4 inches wide, half the size I would have guessed from the enlarged microfilm images. There was his name, “Isacus Newton,” proudly inscribed by the 17-year-old with his quill, and the date, 1659.
“He filled the pages with meticulous script, the letters and numerals often less than one-sixteenth of an inch high,” I wrote in my book “Isaac Newton” a few years later. “He began at both ends and worked toward the middle.”
Apparently historians know the feeling well — the exhilaration that comes from handling the venerable original. It’s a contact high. In this time of digitization, it is said to be endangered. The Morgan Notebook of Isaac Newton is online now (thanks to the Newton Project at the University of Sussex). You can surf it.
The raw material of history appears to be heading for the cloud. What once was hard is now easy. What was slow is now fast.
Is this a case of “be careful what you wish for”?
Last month the British Library announced a project with Google to digitize 40 million pages of books, pamphlets and periodicals dating to the French Revolution. The European Digital Library, Europeana.eu, well surpassed its initial goal of 10 million “objects” last year, including a Bulgarian parchment manuscript from 1221 and the Rok runestone from Sweden, circa 800, which will save you trips to, respectively, the St. Cyril and St. Methodius National Library in Sofia and a church in Ostergotland.
Reporting to the European Union in Brussels, the Comité des Sages (sounds better than “Reflection Group”) urged in January that essentially everything — all the out-of-copyright cultural heritage of all the member states — should be digitized and made freely available online. It put the cost at approximately $140 billion and called this vision “The New Renaissance.”