What's missing is serendipity
As was proven when the world locked down at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it's possible to do a lot of things online that didn't seem like urgent possibilities even 18 months ago. Concerts went moved from auditoriums to living rooms, while even Harvard Medical School went online for the 2020 fall semester.
■ With many places, like much of Australia, still enduring lockdowns, the share of life that now happens in a digital environment rather than a physical one seems set to remain permanently and substantially larger than seemed possible even in 2019. Many of our experiences may actually be enhanced by going virtual. But the migration is -- and will remain -- uneven, and there are some things that can't be properly replicated.
■ One of the great sensory experiences to be had is to meander aimlessly through a well-stocked library -- especially if it's an academic library with a big collection of old theses or stacks of old periodicals. There's lots of embedded knowledge to be found in those stacks -- even in things like the condition of the spine on a bound volume of old magazines. It may be well-worn, telling the passerby that other people have spent lots of time with a collection. Or it may appear completely pristine, hinting at long-forgotten treasures within. And with that embedded knowledge comes serendipity, as the searcher discovers things unexpectedly.
■ There are some tremendous digitization projects underway. Most notable is probably the Internet Archive, which does yeoman's work at trying to provide a free "digital library" of vast reaches of content. But other projects are merely incomplete efforts.
■ Take, for instance, the Google News Archive, which appears promising at first glance, with hundreds of sources. But many of those sources have only few dozen issues to offer digitally. 68 issues of the New York Age from 1890 to 1892 won't get the researcher very far. And the Google book-digitization project, which once drew much fanfare, doesn't seem to be going anywhere due to legal issues and flagging institutional enthusiasm.
■ All of this could be deeply unfortunate if it means that we end up with a patchy and incomplete digital record of the world prior to the Internet era. One can be fairly sure that some kind of digital record will linger somewhere for most books published after Y2K, but there are plenty of publications from prior to 2000 that don't really have advocates to help them make the transition.
■ Just for instance: The recently-deceased Walter Mondale, a one-time Vice President of the United States and the 1984 Democratic candidate for President, wrote a book called "The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency". One can find hard-cover copies available on the second-hand market, but nobody's publishing it anew, nor is it available to purchase for download. One can search inside the book using Google, but not obtain the whole thing that way. Maybe someday that book will make the leap into the digital sphere, but for now it remains mostly stranded in the analog world of the built environment and physical libraries. And Mondale was a highly prominent public figure, even into the Internet era, and his book is on a subject that would seem to be of particular contemporary interest. Yet without anyone advocating for his work to make the digital leap, it may never effectively cross over.
■ It's important to be aware of the biases that affect how we think, and what consequences those have. Omission can be one of those important sources of bias: If we only go looking for information where it's easy to search, we may well miss valuable knowledge whose only sin is having been generated before the digital age.