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  • The Age of Incunabula
  • Russell C. Maulitz (bio)

Recently, in this, the second age of incunabula, a pair of hot air balloonists performed a remarkable circumnavigation of the globe and then used the Internet to memorialize their feat. And this new age of incunabula, of digital libraries and electronic books, like the silent balloonists, is flying by. Pay attention, for it may soon be over.

It has been more than ten years since this author discovered the Internet, with its striking power to change the way we think about medical history and the rest of the world. At this writing (spring 1999), however, it has been only something like four years since I discovered the World Wide Web, the most graphically rich and compelling bit of the Internet—a bit imbued with its own particular, remarkable power. By the time this column appears in print it will have been about four years since this journal began to address medical history and the Internet, and what seemed like a mild breeze in the Spring 1997 issue of the Bulletin has since reached gale force — with profound effects on scholarship. 1

In those years we—I and my collaborators—have touched on several of the particular projects and possibilities that this technological tsunami has thrown up on our scholarly shores. We have discussed teaching, research, the outreach to graphical content, and other important elements of this far-reaching change. It seems about time to return to the subject of the very first column: an overview and assessment of the [End Page 679] meaning of the communications and publishing revolution known by some as “working in Internet time.”

For several years, as we have watched everything from journal publication and scholarly communication to many aspects of our daily commerce migrate to this strange new hyperlinked digital world, it has become increasingly clear that we are participating in the most momentous shift in the means of transmitting knowledge since the late fifteenth century. Just as the publication of the incunables after Gutenberg fostered dramatic innovation and change in the structure of human knowledge, so too are we now witnessing another such restructuring. We are watching and participating in an upsurge in the democratization of knowledge that began with the printed word. The consequences will surely be equally far reaching, though few can claim great prescience in telling this story for all of the next fifty years. Nonetheless, a few things are becoming clear about scholarship in this strange new land. And there are already some surprises: some results that were neither intuitive nor predictable as recently as four years ago.

1. Paper stays. At least for now, paper is not going away. A new balance, a complementarity, is being struck between documents on the Internet and scholarly tools we continue to enjoy holding in our hands. 2 There are all sorts of reasons for this—ranging from the fact that the “ergonomics” of computers are much better for collecting and finding information than for actually reading it, to the fact that most of us have hard-won and loathly discarded filing habits. The question, one supposes, is: will the best paper go away? Reportedly, some course instructors, at least in the more technical institutes, are resorting to the requirement that some small percent of student manuscript citations not derive from the Internet. The related question—whither scholarly publishing: will print evanesce into mere electrons?—is one that could occupy several more columns like this. It certainly occupies many recent conferences, publications (a bit of irony), and symposia. 3

2. Quality suffers—or does it? The now-famous New Yorker cartoon comes to mind, in which one four-legged creature, sitting at a terminal, explains to another: “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The friction-free ease of entry to Internet publication is a source of concern to many. Will quality suffer? The concern extends beyond public-domain anxieties about abusive expression, privacy, and security to the more rarefied, scholarly issues around how best to maintain quality. [End Page 680]

But what are we talking about here? Policing the quality of monographs, curricula, graphical materials, and all the other forms of publication...

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