Of Books and Google Books

In the summer of 1979, I helped to proofread Never at Rest, the biography of Isaac Newton by my graduate advisor Sam Westfall.  Being the meticulous scholar he was (a trait I hope he conveyed to me), he also had me check all of his footnotes.  I marveled at the number of archives and libraries he had visited in his quest to see everything Newton wrote; only an obscure library in Geneva had denied him access, and in his preface he “wished them the joy of their possession.”  I can hear Sam’s inimitable voice in those words, not that I ever dared to call him Sam until I was safely a Ph.D.  That same summer I worked at the Lilly Library at Indiana as a receptionist, a job I held through graduate school.  I learned most of what I know about rare books from Josiah Quincy Bennett, the Lilly’s legendary rare book cataloguer.

In my own research over the past thirty years I’ve visited my share of libraries and archives.  But increasingly over the past few years, I’ve also gone to Gallica or Google Books or EEBO or ECCO and downloaded what now number hundreds of PDFs onto my laptop.  Were I still working on Newtonian matters, I could go to Rob Iliffe’s or Bill Newman‘s excellent websites and read Newton’s manuscripts online.  I love Tim Hitchcock’s Old Bailey website.  I can read the minutes of the Paris Academy of Sciences in my study in Corvallis, Oregon with my cat in my lap and no jet lag.  I can find that stray page number within a few minutes.  In one of her books, Natalie Davis thanked a library’s staff for staying open late on a Saturday night so she could squeeze out that last bit of research, and as a parent whose research has often taken place in manic slots of a few days, I find it unimaginably luxurious to have access to so much that was previously locked up far away.

And yet there is something lost in depending on digital copies for my primary sources, and I don’t just mean access to restaurants in Paris.  I’ve talked elsewhere about what I see as the limits of “culturomics,” the Google n-gram tool. Culturomics sees books as simply units of text, bricks in an edifice of words.  My time at the Lilly made me very conscious of the book as an object and an artifact.  Recently Gallica digitized the Paris Academy’s 1671 Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux.  I have been reading this book for the past decade, in at least four different libraries.  I am thrilled to have it so easily accessible.  But on the screen, the physical presence of “le grand livre” (as the librarians called it who hauled it out for me in Salle Y at the Bibliothèque nationale) is completely lost.  It’s an elephant folio, over two feet high, almost too big to fit in a book cradle.  Most of the copies that I have seen have been bound in red morocco with gold tooling at the corners and Louis XIV’s  fleur-de-lis in the center of the cover.  At the British Library in the summer of 2010 I looked at five copies, all different, including Hans Sloane’s own copy, which was bound in blue cloth.  I propped them up side by side on giant book rests, monopolizing two desks in the crowded rare books reading room.

Of course all books don’t have such presence, but recent studies of reading and note taking should remind us that reading and writing in the pre-digital age were deliberate acts that involved a number of physical objects, sometimes now referred to as “paper technologies”:   loose sheets, notebooks, ink, pens, books, presses, engravers, later perhaps typewriters and carbon paper.  The differences between a broadside and a textbook are not simply in the number of pages but in the quality of the paper, the typeface, the size, even the shape, none of which is conveyed very well by a digital copy.   Likewise a manuscript is not only the words on the page but the page itself.

My second concern, one that I find ample evidence to confirm in my students, is that if a book is not digitized it ceases to exist.   I fear the increasing loss of the physical book to the electronic copy as library budgets continue to contract; we already can see the wholesale unloading of periodical collections.  Wide scale digitization would, it seems, make a project like Never at Rest much easier to do.  But I wonder if in fact the opposite might be true, and that by trusting in the digital we increasingly overlook that other world of print and paper, diminishing our range of vision rather than expanding it.

Perhaps my concerns are unfounded, and I’m not going to delete all those PDFs from my laptop.  But I still go to libraries and archives as often as I can.

This essay also appeared in the April issue of the History of Science Society Newsletter.


If you would like to sign, please contact Rina Knoeff, rknoeff@hum.leidenuniv.nl










From: Participants, delegates and supporters of the

International Conference on ‘Cultures of Anatomical Collections’,

held at Leiden University, 15-18 February 2012


We are scholars, curators and creative artists from across Europe and North America with professional involvements in human anatomy and pathology. We are writing to express our very great concern about the storage and preservation of collections of human anatomy and pathology in some parts of the world.


Almost every medical faculty possesses anatomical and/or pathological collections: human and animal preparations, wax- and other models, as well as drawings, photographs and documents and archives relating to them.


We salute and wholeheartedly commend and admire those institutions in which anatomical and pathological museum materials are celebrated and well-cared for.


However, we are also aware that in some other institutions, such collections are neglected: badly stored, poorly maintained, and rendered inaccessible to medical and other audiences.


Newer teaching methods and preoccupations have sometimes caused these collections to become under-appreciated. Financial constraints and crises can often mean that funding for the conservation, storage, and sometimes even the preservation, of anatomical collections can become de-prioritized. As a result, collections can be in great danger of becoming undervalued and neglected, which may eventually result in permanent damage.


We are aware of more than one recent instance in which curators have been marginalized or lost, and collections placed in inappropriate ‘storage’ conditions, rendering them liable to serious deterioration. Separated from their archives, these collections can lose identity, sometimes irrevocably.


We greatly fear that some uniquely important anatomical collections are currently in danger of being irretrievably damaged and perhaps lost to medical and cultural heritage.


We, the undersigned, wish to raise international awareness concerning the current critical situation for these collections.


Anatomical and pathological collections are medically relevant not only for future generations of medical students and faculty, and for future medical research. They are also important in the history of medicine generally, for the history of the institutions to which they belong, and also for a wider understanding of the cultural history of the body.


These collections sometimes document diseases and medical conditions that are now rare or simply no longer exist, teaching methods and preoccupations currently unfashionable or apparently superseded, and techniques of manufacture and display no longer practised. Collections often hold rare and extraordinary materials that are records of unique scientific investigations, medical conditions, and skills. In some cases these materials are the only documents that allow us to understand key changes and developments in Western medicine, and their dissemination.


Moreover, anatomical collections are crucial to new scholarly inter-disciplinary studies that investigate the interaction between arts and sciences, especially but not exclusively medicine. Such collections allow the study of interactions between anatomists, scientists and anatomical artists, and other occupational groups involved in anatomical and pathological displays. They embody the rich histories related to the display of natural history and medical cabinets; they reveal how new artistic and documentary techniques and materials were adopted by physicians and scientists in other historical periods; they demonstrate how new knowledge about the body and the natural world was presented by and for the medical, scientific and sometimes lay audiences.


Ultimately anatomical collections are important in knowing ourselves and the bodies we are. In this sense they are no less important than world famous artworks like the “Mona Lisa”, the “Venus de Milo” or Michelangelo’s “David”.


We urge medical faculties worldwide to mobilise all possible means in order to protect and preserve the important academic, medical, institutional, scientific and cultural heritage these collections represent.


Moreover we urge funding bodies to recognise and cherish these collections.



Babke Aarts (assistant curator, Utrecht University Museum)

Prof. Rosa Ballester (historian of science, University Miguel Hernández)

Roberta Ballestriero, M.Phil. (art historian, associate lecturer for the Open University, Manchester, photographer)

Dr. Philip Beh, MBBS, DMJ, FHKAM(Path), FFFLM (Associate Professor forensic pathology, the University of Hong Kong)

Dr. Leo van Bergen (medical historian, Royal Netherlands Institute for South East Asian and Caribbean Studies, Leiden)

Timo Bolt, MA (medical historian, UMC Utrecht)

Prof. Jose-Luis Bueno-Lopez (President Spanish Society of Anatomy, the University of the Basque Country, Leioa, Spain)

Owen Burke (medical physicist at Glan Clwyd Hospital, photographer)

Prof. Li Chong Chan (Chair, Professor of Pathology, the University of Hong Kong)

Prof. Montserrat Cabré (historian of science, Universidad de Cantabria)

Prof. P.H. Dangerfield (clinical anatomist, University of Liverpool)

Andries J. van Dam (conservator, Leiden University Medical Centre and directory board member Committee for Conservation, International Council of Museums, ICOM-CC)

Prof. Dr. Sven Dupré (professor of History of Knowledge, Institute for Art History, Freie Universität Berlin)

Dr. James M. Edmonson (Chief Curator, Dittrick Museum, Case Western Reserve University, Secretary General of the European Association of Museums of the History of the Medical Sciences)

Dr. Florike Egmond (cultural and science historian, Leiden University)

J. Carlos Garcia-Reyes (historian of science, CSIC, Barcelona)

Dr. Anita Guerrini (historian of science, Oregon State University)

Ayda Christina Garzón Soarte (Conservator and museologist, Universidad El Bosque, Bogota, Colombia, South America)

Dr. Alette Fleischer (historian of science)

Prof. Dr. Inge Fourneau (professor in vascular surgery and anatomy, KU Leuven)

Drs. Bart Grob (curator, medical history, Museum Boerhaave, Leiden)

Prof. Hughes Dreyssé (chairman UMAC-ICOM (University Museums and Academic Collections – International Council of Museums))

Dr. Glenn Harcourt (historian of art and visual culture, independent scholar, Los Angeles, CA)

Marieke Hendriksen (MA, MRes, cultural and medical historian, Leiden University)

Christopher Henry (Director of Heritage, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh)

Dr. Marijn Hollestelle (historian of science, Foundation for the History of Technology, Eindhoven)

Assoc. Prof. PD MAG. Dr.phil. Dr. Med. Sonia Horn (Medical University of Vienna)

Dr. Nick Hopwood (historian of medical science, University of Cambridge)

Prof. Frank Huisman (medical historian, University Medical Center Utrecht)

Hieke Huistra Msc (medical historian, Leiden University)

Dr. Tiffany Jenkins (sociologist, & arts and society director of the Institute of Ideas)

Dr. Karin Johannisson (medical historian, Uppsala)

Dr. Stephen C. Kenny (historian, University of Liverpool)

Dr. Rina Knoeff (medical historian, Leiden University)

Prof. Richard L. Kremer (historian of science, curator of the King collection of Historic Scientific Instruments, Dartmouth College, USA)

Dr. Anna Maerker (medical historian, King´s College London)

Dr. Daniel Margocsy (assistant professor of history, Hunter College – CUNY)

Prof. G.M. Morriss-Kay (Balliol College, Oxford)

Dr. Ulrika Nilsson (medical historian, Stockholm University, Sweden)

David Pantalony (curator, physical sciences and medicine, Canada Science and Technology Museum)

Dr. José Pardo-Tomás (medical historian, CSIC, Spanish Council of Scientific Research)

Dr. Sebastian Pranghofer (historian of medicine, Helmut-Schmidt-University, Hamburg and Durham University)

Prof. Concepcion Reblet, MD, PhD (The University of the Basque Country, Leioa, Spain)

Dr Ruth Richardson (historian, King’s College, London and Hong Kong University)

Prof. Dr. Alessandro Ruggeri ( Director of “Museo delle Cere Anatomiche “Luigi Cattaneo” Alma Mater Studiorum Bologna University -Italy

Dr. Miguel Ruiz-Rubiano (Anatomy Professor,)

Lisa Temple-cox (independent researcher, Essex)

Dr. Michael Sappol (historian, National Library of Medicine, USA)

Prof. Thomas Söderqvist (Director Medical Meseion, University of Copenhagen)

Dr. Cindy Stelmackowich (artist, art historian and medical historian, New York Academy of Medicine and Carleton University)

Prof. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas (Professor of English, University of Toulouse (UTM))

Prof. Dr. Thomas Schnalke (medical historian, Director of the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité)

Somayyeh Shahsavari (medical student (MBBS4), St. George’s University of London)

Dr. Rajul Singh, FRC Path (Good hope hospital, Sutton Coldfield)

Dr. Stefan Sommer (Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University)

Barbara Tramelli (doctoral student, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin)

Prof. Dr. Geert Vanpaemel (historian of science, KU Leuven)

Robert Vonk, MA (medical historian, VU university medical center, Amsterdam)

Darren Wagner (cultural and medical historian, University of York)

Dr. Cornelia Weber (General Manager, Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik, Humboldt University of Berlin)

Dr. Elizabeth A. Williams (Ph.D., medical historian, Oklahoma State University)

Dr. Kaat Wils (cultural historian, KU Leuven)

Ieteke Witteveen (National Archaelogical-Anthropological Memory Management, Curacao, Carribbean)

Dr. Alfons Zarzoso (historian and curator, Museu d’Història de la Medicina de Catalunya, Barcelona, CEHIC, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

Prof. Dr. Robert Zwijnenberg (Leiden chair of art in relation to the sciences, Leiden University)