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“Against the universal library of e-books”

*Apologies for somewhat unpolished write-up and format.

Though the title of my blog post today might sound like I’m completely opposing the economy and virtues of digital books and archives that this week’s readings are in part addressing, that’s not my direction in initiating our discussion in the meeting today. Similar to most of academics (and non-academic readers), I advocate the democratic promises and affordances of virtual (which is thereby portable) books and archives in terms of its accessibility and archival usability. However, I’d like to join the proliferation of e-books and e-archives as long as they can be related back to the attributes of socio-cultural and economical infrastructure of specific communities and personhoods otherwise marginalized in the capitalist landscape and exchange of media. I borrowed the title of this post from Rebecca Lossin’s essay “Against the Universal Library” for New Left Review 107, Sept/Oct 2017. (You can read the essay here: https://newleftreview.org/issues/II107/articles/rebecca-lossin-against-the-universal-library). In that essay, Lossin argues that “digitization, and the digitization of books in particular, is not benign. In both its utopian and pragmatic forms, digitization conceals a destructive impulse that not only eliminates books but threatens the very freedom of discourse it purports to promote; erodes the educational experience of those it claims to support; and monetizes, thus commodifies, intellectual life in the name of free access. And all of this dramatically alters the writing it contains, if it doesn’t practically erase it.” Even if, to save our discussion time for today, I’m reluctant to address several crucial points that Lossin raises against universalization of digital books, I think some of our readings pose similar concerns regarding the intellectual content and its connection to communities (both public and counter-public if dividable) in looking at the pervasiveness of “bibliologistics” (Kirschenbaum) and books as digital objects that rely on viral capitalism and its indifference to the book’s content (which is the idea and discourse).

As a researcher and scholar of artists’ books, I still defend limited books by hand-pressing or books from small publishers printed on demand. And I know that they are also interested in digitizing their books for preservation and accessibility. However, it’s quite magical to observe their survival as a current book publishing world (paradoxically, worldless as they don’t rely on any specific sites that used to represent a nexus of work involved in producing and distributing books) is not at all interested in what books need to say and show (both critically and aesthetically from authors’ and authors’ communities’ perspectives). Kirschenbaum’s discussion of “bibliologistics” and its anomaly in focusing on “supply chain” in contemporary book publishing seems to illuminate the issue quite a bit. Kirschenbaum states: “The sense of arbitrariness I felt in Kendallville (what am I doing in Kendallville?) seems confirmed by this anomaly, a reminder of the inscrutable nature of the supply chain. As Cowen notes, “commodities today are manufactured across logistical space rather than in a single place.” Bibliologistics, as a project, must, it seems to me, confront such anomalies and antinomies, the allure of site specificity versus the ultimate modularity and replicability — disposability — of those self-same sites, which is the very logic of logistics.” Following this, we can remind ourselves that the current book publication and distribution tend to be oblivious to the particular life-spaces of labor (material, intellectual, creative, and so on). Acknowledging this, the episode of a disappeared Kindle version of Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software objects in Kirschenbaum’s article “Books After the Death of the Book” isn’t surprising. Depending on market demands and (profitable) exchangeability, the book as a digital object can anytime disappear unless there’s an underground act of piracy and preservation of books (both analog and digital) that are always disposable by logistics and markets (which are also tied to the limited size of the web database). I also recall somewhere in our readings, Posner pointed out logistics is self-healing, but then we can perhaps question in regarding the life of books, what would bibliologistics do towards books in its mode of self-healing? What is self-healed in the operation of bibliologistics?

Thinking of piracy and preservation on the positive side, what I appreciated in Borsuk’s discussion of _The Book_. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2018. (esp. “The Book as Interface”) is the history of The Internet Archive. Though I’m not sure how it financially maintains its capacities, The Internet Archive seems to approach both digitized materials and the conventional library books as books to preserve and circulate outside of profitability. Beyond the fact that The Internet Archive, in 2005, began scanning library books for future generations and didn’t destroy the physical books as archival objects, they, similar to Wayback Machine, initiated “Physical Archive of the Internet Archive” which houses physical materials already saved in their digital archive in ways of ensuring material preservation as well as cross-references. In addition, it enabled libraries and public schools to print their DIY books of its digitized books as a mode of envisioning the hybrid survival of analog and digital books. Even if I’m still not sure how this way of publishing can help keeping and promoting rather marginalized artists’ books and miniscule materials in the universalization of virtual library, I thought this might suggest a promising difference between rather militant approach to electronic books (which coexist with analog archives and distributions) and the principle and operation of capitalistic bibliologistics in the recent ecologies of books and other cultural media.