Maybe Digitization Isn't Always a Good Idea

Kate Marek writes about a story told by Paul Duguid, author of Social Life of Information, about his experience in a closed-stacks archive, where he was reviewing 250-year old primary documents for a research project. “Duguid, who suffers from asthma, was careful to cover his nose and mouth with a scarf while working with the dusty documents. One day, a fellow researcher in the study room (to Duguid’s horror, as he recalls it) spent his time with a box of letters not reading them, but instead holding each letter to his face, drawing deep breaths through his nose to capture its smell. Here is what Duguid writes about their conversation:

Choking behind my mask, I asked him what he was doing. He was, he told me, a medical              historian. (A profession to avoid if you have asthma.) He was documenting outbreaks of        cholera. When that disease occurred in a town in the eighteenth century, all letters from the        town were disinfected with vinegar to prevent the disease from spreading. By sniffing for the      faint traces of vinegar that survived 250 years and noting the date and source of the letter, he           was able to chart the progress of cholera outbreaks.”

As Marek notes, “I have used this story repeatedly when talking about digitization in libraries. It is a perfect illustration of the potential losses we face when we digitize—what information we lose when we move from physical to electronic and how we may be totally unaware and unsuspecting about those potential losses.” Duguid’s tale is just one of the many fascinating examples of how storytelling can be used in organizations to pass along important object lessons, history, and shared experiences in the library. For more about the value of storytelling, check out Kate’s new book, Organizational Storytelling for Librarians: Using Stories for Effective Leadership.