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The value of rare books in a digital age

What is the fate of rare books as the world goes digital? Last winter a book dealer noted that we had electronic access to a book he was offering. It led him to ask, "Does that make the actual book redundant?" Dartmouth students, faculty and staff now have digital access to an amazing range of early English-language books thanks to subscriptions to two new electronic resources. Early English Books Online (EEBO) provides digital page images of nearly every book printed in the English language before 1700, and Early American Imprints does the same for nearly every book printed before 1800 concerning the geographic area that would become the United States.

Jay Satterfield
Jay Satterfield in Rauner Special Collections Library, holding the College's copy of Shakespeare's first folio, printed in 1623. The book, which was used in a faculty workshop on early English-language imprints, is housed in an early 20th-century presentation case. Cases, printing and binding are all clues to a text's cultural status. (photo by Sarah Benelli)

This digital access has profound implications for Special Collections. Suddenly the text is not so important - we have it, easily available to every faculty member or student at any hour of the day or night and, in many cases, it is keyword searchable. So books now have to do something beyond deliver the text. They have to say something.

As a result of the unprecedented access created by new digital resources, the library organized a faculty workshop on working with early English-language imprints. Held in Rauner Special Collections, the workshop compared a selection of texts in digital format, in microform and as physical books.

We discovered that in nearly every case, the physical book provided clues to the history of the text that the digital version lacked. More than that, handling the original texts created an immediate and visceral link to the past-to the authors, the authors' readers, even to the coffee houses where the books in their day were being discussed.

The electronic versions were, by contrast, decontextualized flickers of light. One book, for example, had annotations by a contemporary reader; another was specially bound denoting its status as a revered cultural artifact; still another surprised us by its sheer bulk, something that was not apparent when seen electronically. On screen, a pamphlet looks pretty much the same as a heavy tome and connotes the same permanence. In your hands its ephemeral qualities become apparent and the stains and wear suggest a particular style of reading. The books spoke to us, begging questions that we had not thought to ask from looking at electronic facsimiles.

The experience showed me once again the importance of Rauner Special Collections as a place of teaching, learning and discovery. Special Collections at Dartmouth has always been about the students. It provides original source materials to enhance their comprehension of historical concepts and encourage them to move beyond what is typically considered undergraduate research. And we are now working to integrate Special Collections into the curriculum in new ways. We offered introductions to first-year students, admissions tour guides, a sorority house and interested parents. We made presentations at faculty meetings on how Special Collections can help students. Last year, 44 different classes from 16 different departments came in to use rare and unique materials in class, and several faculty members created assignments that drew on the collections.

What we learned this past year, as faculty increasingly drew on Special Collections to teach, is that the physical book is not irrelevant or redundant-in fact, its relevancy appears to be increasing as electronic copies make us more aware of the tangible information ingrained in the fabric of the physical book. This information augments and elucidates the text within. The two formats complement one another.

The electronic resources provide a rich context for the books we actually own and allow them to be compared with the other texts their original readers may have consulted. A simple search can now help a student understand if the sermon she ponders was an anomaly in its day or part of a larger conversation appearing in print.

Digital access actually enhances the value of rare books and heightens their impact in the classroom. Rare books will never become idle curiosities of another era. They are becoming a key source for helping students conceptualize the social and cultural context underlying ideas and texts discussed in class, while engaging their imaginations to question texts on multiple levels.

Rauner Special Collections Librarian

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08