Book Review: The Case For Books by Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton is not a Luddite.   While his academic background is in history and he readily admits to spending a great deal of time in rare book rooms perusing very old manuscripts printed on dead tree paper, Darnton  is nonetheless professionally at the forefront of the revolution in information technology.   Indeed,  the director of Harvard University’s library system is fully conversant in the issues surrounding electronic publications and “open access”  and also spent a few years working on a pilot program to electronically publish dissertations.    Nevertheless, Darnton makes a compelling case for the continuing role of what he refers to as “codexes”,   a fancy term for printed paper books.

The Case For Books is a collection of essays which Darnton wrote over a number of years and published in a variety of venues.   Collected together they form a cogent examination of the role of printed books past, present and future.    I was quite surprised (as was Darnton, actually) by the issues that arose in the dissertation project and by the fact that swapping electronic for printed publishing did not in fact make the publication process any cheaper.     I was also rather appalled to learn that the publishers of academic journals have raised their subscription prices (to the level of $20,000 or more per year!) to a degree that academic libraries lack the resources to purchase many monographs or published dissertations and that this has created a crisis in academia where the old “publish or perish” maxim continues to apply,  even though very few dissertations get published anymore.     If you are a bibliophile,   The Case For Books is Highly Recommended.

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