Avatars of the Word
by James J. O’Donnell (Harvard University Press, 1998)
This was one of the most exciting books I read in a long time. I reviewed it when it came out, for The Bi-Monthly Review of Law Books.. I'd like to recommend it all over again. Librarians, faculty, cyber-specialists of all types should read this book. If you read Version 2.0 by Esther Dyson, try this for a scholarly extrapolation of her thinking.
O’Donnell is a classicist who extended his range into the early Middle Ages, studying Augustine and Cassiodorus as well as Plato. He is currently at the University of Pennsylvania, and invites visitors to his website. O’Donnell is a lover of books (and libraries!) who is thinking deeply and broadly about how the new technology will affect books, libraries, scholarship and universities. He brings his classics training to bear on contemplations of how the technology of writing, of the codex and of printing have affected society. Then, he uses his experience as a faculty pioneer on the Web and e-mail to consider how those new technologies will affect us now. This is not a simple read, but will richly repay your efforts. He is a very sophisticated library user and an erudite scholar.
Among other topics, O’Donnell considers how new technology has changed the ancient problem of information scarcity to information overload. He recognizes that publishers, faculty and librarians will have to adjust to this new economy, noting that librarians have already led the way in this area. He contemplates the changes that were beginning to be driven by electronic journal publishing: unbundling issues of journals so the reader buys one article or even paragraph as needed; but also the flip side of that change, so that a single article may be listed as affiliated with several different journals, reaching a wider readership.
O’Donnell envisions linking primary materials with the secondary materials, so that a student could read Augustine’s essay, and jump to the commentaries by scholars over the centuries. He thinks about the consequences both for scholars and for universities as well as for teaching. This book is thought-provoking, consoling and challenging at the same time. I highly recommend Avatars of the Word.