Fascinating, having done most of my research just before digitisation made a huge difference, great to see someone looking back “before”:

But when I got to the library itself it was Aladdin’s Cave. There were manuscripts and rare books (the world’s best collection of Victorian novels in serial, for example), many of them uncatalogued. It required a certain nerve to ask the librarian to cut the page of a monthly serial of – say – a William Harrison Ainsworth part that had been sealed for 110 years. All the stuff I was interested in was untrod snow. And, of course, you had no way of knowing the full riches within the collections unless you were there in person (the same was true of the British Museum’s “rare books and manuscript” department, which lagged years behind “accessing” its vast holdings. It was a scholarly bran tub).

Forty years on (a full academic career) and everything is different. Professor Google, Dr Xerox and Mr Jumbo Jet (not to say email and dirt-cheap telephony) have created the research equivalent of Marshall McLuhan’s global village. Things are moving at ever faster speed. Within the foreseeable future, the British Library (successor to the old BM, with its elephant folio catalogue) will have all its contents digitised and text searchable. No more days out (lunchless, typically, given the non-existent refreshment facilities) at Colindale. Once the Google Books Library Project sorts out its copyright problems, one will be able to access a whole copyright library from one’s iPad. Electronic cataloguing now has the amazing utility of a car’s GPS system. It takes you wherever you want to go, no fuss whatsoever. And once you have it, you can’t imagine what it was like not to have it.

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