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What Is the Future of the Print Record?
J. Hillis Miller

It is a great honor and a great responsibility to be a member of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the Print Record. The future of the print record is jeopardized in two quite different ways these days. The first threat: approximately one hundred million books and other materials in United States libraries printed on acid paper will become unusable during the next several decades. They are oxidizing, slowly burning up, becoming brittle, crumbling away, and becoming unreadable. Second threat to the print record: new electronic communication technologies are bringing about a revolution as great as was the shift from manuscript culture to print culture. Books and other materials printed on paper will become, indeed have already become, less and less important in the new electronic culture we are rapidly entering. Computers, e-mail, faxes, the Internet, electronic books, and multimedia materials are already decisively transforming research and teaching in the humanities. They are doing this in ways we have hardly begun to understand fully, since we are in the midst of the revolution. Books will be with us for a long time, decisive in the lives of many for the foreseeable future, but already the sensibilities, the ethos, the politics, the sense of personal identity of many of our citizens, including college students and faculty members, are determined more by television, cinema, and video than by printed books.

Both these changes are, for better or worse, irreversible. Those brittle books are going to fall apart. The electronic revolution has already, to a considerable degree, occurred. It joins the end of the Cold War and the globalization of university research (which means that universities more and more serve transnational corporations rather than the nation-state) as one of the three major factors that are rapidly transforming American higher education.

In preparing these remarks, I have asked myself what I really do think about the use of original materials. One thing is clear to me. The first obligation of the MLA is to support vigorously those efforts in textual preservation, now funded to a large degree by the NEH, that will at best be able to save only twenty-five or thirty percent of the titles printed on acid paper.

The second obligation: the MLA needs to make every effort to study the effects of the electronic revolution, along with those of the globalization that goes with it, and to make sure that it happens in ways that will be beneficial to our interests. To study this revolution means supporting the radically new graduate training that will make our young scholars and teachers appropriately educated for the study of many cultures (as in, for example, global literature in English or United States literature in languages other than English) as well as for the study of those media that mix language with other visual and auditory materials, media such as cinema, television, and video, which have such influence on our lives today. To make sure the electronic revolution proceeds in ways beneficial to our interests means resisting the rapid commercialization of the Internet that is at this moment occurring. It means also doing our best to make sure that electronic storage of printed materials carries as much as possible of the history that is embodied in the physical artifacts: for example, all the illustrations in Victorian novels and all the information in the dust jackets, title pages, end pages, and so on of physical books in general that electronic books now characteristically leave out but could easily include. We need to ensure the preservation of full bibliographical information about the originals when books are electronically or photographically stored. We need to urge care in the choice of exemplars to be copied. We need to urge those who prepare electronic transcriptions to follow the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative.

The third obligation is to attend closely to the uses of original materials and to save as many of those artifacts as possible. I strongly urge that the MLA appoint a joint working group with the Association of Research Libraries to make decisions about preserving original materials where the artifactual value is questionable. In urging that this joint group be formed, I join Betty G. Bengtson, chair of the ARL Preservation of Library Materials Committee. In her recent letter to Phyllis Franklin she said: "The issue of cost is critical, given the magnitude of the preservation problem and the vast number of endangered research materials. In a context where choices will be made, it is vital to distinguish between materials that have significant artifactual value and those for which surrogates can be created through electronic, photographic, or other means."

The difficulties will come in trying to make such distinctions. Let me give a little example. Last summer on Deer Isle, Maine, where I spend my summers, I was rereading a novel by Anthony Trollope, Ayala's Angel (1881). I brought with me my old copy of the Oxford World's Classics reprint of this novel. Originally published in 1929, this reprint was reissued several times thereafter (my copy is dated 1960) as part of a more or less comprehensive edition of Trollope's novels. They were included over fifty years ago in the World's Classics series (in which Ayala's Angel was number 342), long before personal computers were invented. A note at the end of the book tells me it was "set in Great Britain at the University Press, Oxford, and Printed by J. W. Arrowsmith Ltd, Bristol." It cost "10s 6d. net in U.K. only," and I bought it in London in the late 1960s. I first read the novel in this edition. It is a quasi-sacred object for me, one with which I have a long personal association. I have carried it from place to place as part of my library. My relation to this object is an example of the way so many readers of my generation and many generations before mine have participated in a reasonably benign fetishism of the book.

Ayala's Angel however, was also available to me on Deer Isle in another way: as an electronic book, part of the Oxford Text Archive collection of such books. I had access to that by way of my laptop computer and the modem that connected me by courtesy to the Internet server at Colby College. What is the difference between reading Ayala's Angel in book form and reading it in electronic text form? I have stressed the physical embodiment of Ayala's Angel in the World's Classics edition. Not only is the text of the novel caught in the materiality of the book, it is also tied by way of the book's paper, cardboard, ink, and glue to the historical and economic conditions of its production and distribution. The edition was part of a moment in English publishing history when one of the great academic-commercial English publishers made classic books of Western literature available in inexpensive form. This moment was preceded by earlier moments, first by the initial publication of the book in 1881, then by subsequent cheap editions. Many of Trollope's novels were reprinted as yellow-bound paperbacks sold in railway stations in the late nineteenth century. The twentieth-century World's Classics version was thus a later stage in English publishing history. It depended on the existence of a large literate middle-class reading public in Britain. It also depended to some degree on the fact that television was not yet available.

The Oxford University Press in the twentieth century has been, moreover, an international operation. Its books have been marketed all over the world, but especially in cities in what were once British colonies or parts of the British Empire. The globalization of the English language did not occur by accident or because of some intrinsic superiority of that language. The list of cities--printed on the page facing the title page--where the Oxford University Press in 1960 asserted itself as located reads like a litany of sites associated with British colonialism and imperialism: Glasgow, New York, Toronto, Melbourne, Wellington, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Karachi, Kuala Lumpur, Cape Town, Ibadan, Nairobi, Accra. The sun never sets on the Oxford University Press. In all these ways, and in others space does not allow me to specify, the little book that I hold in my hand is embedded in history, embodies that history in material form, and gives me access to that history.

The electronic text version of Ayala's Angel is cut off from all signs of historical context. Or, rather, it is given a strange new historical placement in the cyberspace of today. A date of original publication is indicated, and that is about all. The novel exists not as embodied in material form, or at least not material in the fixed way of a printed book. It exists as a large number of bits of information, zeroes and ones inscribed as magnetic differences on a hard disk or on magnetic tape or as minute scratches on an optical disk or as electrical pulses on the wired and wireless transmissions of the Internet. Ayala's Angel as an electronic book takes on a new meaning when it is placed in this new context, when it floats in cyberspace. It is detached from its local historical context and becomes a text in the context of an enormous and incoherent abundance of works of all kinds--verbal, pictorial, and auditory--on the Internet. As such it might now become the object of a globalized "cultural studies" by scholars who are themselves more and more transformed--in part by their use of the computer and by their inhabitation of cyberspace--in their relation to the culture of the book. This transformation is occurring even though it is still a primary goal of literary history and literary criticism in the modern languages to understand and interpret that culture of the book.

To show the difficulties involved in deciding which original materials to preserve and which not, I have deliberately chosen an example, Ayala's Angel in the Oxford World's Classics edition, that is not original in the ordinary sense. A well-known essay by R. W. Chapman long ago demonstrated how unreliable as texts the Oxford World's Classics editions of Trollope's novels are. Probably this edition of Ayala's Angel would not qualify as a book worth saving in its original form for its artifactual value, whereas a first edition of Ayala's Angel might conceivably do so. My example is meant to show, however, that much can be learned about history, even with such secondary or tertiary editions, from close attention to the materiality of the book, its binding, dust jacket, title page, and so on. My example is also meant to show how difficult it is, in practice, to distinguish between the book as artifact and the book as the bearer of pure verbal information, data that might be transcribed unchanged and without loss into any form, including electronic, just as it might be translated, without loss, into another language. This does not weaken my allegiance to the three obligations I began by identifying, or the hierarchy in which I placed them, but it does indicate the extreme difficulty of deciding which books to save in their original form for their artifactual value, as they cannot all be saved. Nevertheless, we must decide. I hope the MLA will play an important role in that process.


The author is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. A version of this paper was presented at the 1994 MLA convention in San Diego.


Works Cited

Bengtson, Betty G. Letter to Phyllis Frankin. 7 Dec. 1994.

Chapman, R. W. "The Text of Trollope's Novels." Review of English Studies 17 (1941) 322-31.

Trollope, Anthony. Ayala's Angel. 1881. World's Classics 342. Oxford: UP, 1929. Online. Oxford Text Archive. World Wide Web. August 1994.

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