NY Review of Books: Robert Darnton Reviews Peter Baldwin’s, “Athena Unbound: Why and How Scholarly Knowledge Should Be Free for All”
In Athena Unbound Baldwin takes a hard look at the world of knowledge. Have no illusions, he warns: journal publishers are gouging their customers, scholarly monographs reach a tiny audience, libraries are floundering under budget pressures, academics are pursuing careers rather than truth, and readers are not getting all the information they deserve. He expresses contempt for “cultural nostalgists,” who have a romantic view of creativity and an outdated attachment to the printed codex.
Yet he also argues that recent trends point to a favorable future. The widespread notion that we are being buried under unmanageable, expensive, and frequently false information is misleading, he claims, because the improvement of search engines will one day help us find everything we need, and the triumph of open access will eventually make all scholarly knowledge available for free.
Baldwin, however, seems to favor gold [version of open access]. He concedes that it will not work if not applied globally, but he imagines a future in which journals will give up subscription fees in exchange for payments to publish. A great deal of “flipping” to publishing charges is already occurring. But it often results in hybrid journals, which pocket publishing charges (often paid in part by libraries) for articles they make accessible for free, while continuing to collect subscriptions, also paid for by libraries. Unless all the major scientific journals switch entirely to gold, library budgets will not be able to bear the burden.
In the best of all possible worlds, Baldwin imagines a global bulletin board that would make everything instantly accessible, fusing green and gold. All content, of books as well as articles, would be financed by the producers, stored in the cloud, and downloaded gratis by consumers—or, for readers who favor the printed codex, produced by publishers and sold in the manner of trade books.
Cyberspace may have room for an infinite number of texts, but we must find a way to preserve them. Digitized works are fragile. They are made up of minuscule ones and zeroes that decompose, and they require metadata that is equally vulnerable and that can become obsolete, leaving them lost in the cloud. Present techniques of surveillance and migrating texts from one format to another are expensive and incapable of preserving a universal digital library. Baldwin’s assertion that “everything can be saved” is dubious. My advice to anyone who wants to preserve a digital work is: print it on paper.
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About Gary Price
Gary Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com.