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portal: Libraries and the Academy 3.2 (2003) 348-349
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Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age,David M. Levy. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001. 212 p. $24.95 (ISBN 1-55970-553-1)
This valuable book joins a growing and varied literature that emphasizes the importance of studying documentation in its varied formats, from books and other mass media to administrative and archival records. Like many other contributors to this literature, David Levy, of the Information School at the University of Washington and a former researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, notes the ubiquity, yet curious invisibility of the documents we use. Comparing this paradox to other curious silences, such as avoidance of talk about death, he observes, "Even when things become invisible-whether it is the fact of death or the endless varieties of written forms around us—there may still be times and reasons to bring them to light, to open them up to inspection and reflection." (p. 4) For Levy, our sometimes-disorienting transition to electronic communications provides the occasion to explore documents as objects of study, rather than as mere vehicles for study of other things. While Levy draws eclectically on the wider literature to do so, he also offers a more overtly personal reflection on documents than most academic writers. Indeed, this book is very much an account of Levy's intriguing and instructive personal adjustment to the computerized document.
Levy's path through the computer realm began when he obtained a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford in the late 1970s. But rather than moving directly to pursue the array of opportunities at the time, he stunned friends and family by opting to study calligraphy and bookbinding in England. He found the "stultifying narrowness" of computer science deeply dissatisfying. It "seemed ungrounded to me, lacking cultural and historical perspective." The old art of calligraphy allowed him to see "historical understanding as the basis of sound design and grounded innovation." (pp. xi-xiii) In Scrolling Forward Levy brings this perspective to his discussion of the computerization of publications and other documentation. His message is that appreciation of the wider context in which documentation has been created and used (or the history of that documentation) can help us make sense of the transition to computerized documents and allow us to incorporate digital documents in our ongoing effort to understand our societies and ourselves.
Levy notes that we have entered the computer age, with its profound impact on documents, archiving, and librarianship, without much attention to the roles and characteristics of documents and the challenges of managing them, especially over time. Technical prowess, divorced from much historical, cultural, and societal sensibility, has brought us to the current problem of virtually unmanageable computerized documents. Levy maintains that "immense effort" (p. 158) will be required of societies to address this problem. He is heartened by the success of past societies in providing stabilizing contexts for making sense of books and other documents [End Page 348] in traditional formats. Yet Levy also realizes that our understanding of such contexts has (itself) a history. For many today, the contexts for understanding documents have become far more complex and uncertain than ever before. Although he had hoped that greater knowledge of context would provide that missing grounding for computerized documents, he now acknowledges that it has simultaneously both stabilizing and destabilizing effects on our efforts to make sense of documents. Levy recognizes but, understandably, given its complexity, cannot resolve this tension. We cannot make sense of documents without contextualizing them, but our understanding of such contexts evolves, and thus actually changes the documents, by changing their meanings.
Levy puts his finger on a key issue for librarians and archivists. Reading that complex documentary context or history is among their primary tasks, if they are to assist others to use documents effectively. His recognition of the complexities underscores the inadequacies of the principal conventional approaches: viewing documents as objects to be managed (mainly by technical means), without much contextual information (the weakness...