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From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts

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Although this book focuses on the problems and potentials for electronic representations of the fundamental materials of document-based knowledge in literature, similar conditions obtain for representations of works in music, philosophy, history, the law, and religion. These fields find in paper documents the primary materials of their research and, as in all other fields, use documents as repositories of scholarly knowledge. It would please me if the principles emerging from this study were found applicable in these other fields as well.

The title, From Gutenberg to Google, came to me in Mainz, Germany, at the Gutenberg Museum. As I stood looking at copies of the first book printed from moveable type 500 years ago – its beauty, its endurance – I had a vision in the form of a question: where, in 500 years, would anyone stand to look at a museum display of the first electronic book and would the words ‘‘endurance’’ and ‘‘beauty’’ come to mind? The question may have a breath-taking answer, though I do not know what it is. Endurance and beauty were, perhaps, byproducts and not the primary goal of Gutenberg’s enterprise. The future of electronic editing dawns as clearly bright to us now as the future of printing must have appeared in the first decades following 1452 to the scribes employed on the new medium of print. Other scribes employed in scriptoria continued to produce elegant manuscripts for over 100 years. No doubt the complex and tedious new technologies – casting type, composing texts using type-sorts with reversed letter images and representing an enormous investment of tin and lead, printing at large presses resembling the tools of oil and wine manufacturing, and involving so much labor before a single inked impression appeared on paper – must have seemed excessive to many scribes who could have copied any number of beautiful pages in half the time and at a fraction of the expense it took to set up a single page for print. But when the press began to be worked, hundreds of copies materialized in less time than it took to speak the text, let alone copy it.

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