We all know there’s a massive shift of information onto the Internet, with Google Books scanning whole libraries, more content being born digital, the transformation of digital libraries, and tera-peta-exa-zeta-yotta-yadayadayada-bytes of data going online. But somehow, those abstract notions don’t have quite the same tangible impact as actual physical artifacts (like books) with their connections to our personal histories. Here’s how this hit home for me today.
I first got interested in computational linguistics around 1979, when i was finishing up my degree at Occidental College (an independent major combining linguistics and anthropology) and playing around with computers. Later, as a graduate student in linguistics at UCLA, i attended my first academic conference in the field: COLING 84 at Stanford, a combined gathering of the 10th International Conference on Computational Linguistics and the 22nd Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics. It was a pretty heady experience for this young man: i still remember playing with the bit-mapped graphics on what i think was a Xerox Star, one of the earliest commercial systems with many of the display and interface innovations that are commonplace today.
I brought back the proceedings, a hefty volume about 3cm thick. Later i joined the Association for Computational Linguistics, which included getting the journal Computational Linguistics, and over the course of my 19 years with BBN Technologies i attended many annual meetings and other workshops, collecting proceedings all the time (they started distributing them on CDs around 2000). I have close to a complete collection of the journal for many years (dozens of volumes). I count 16 proceedings volumes, typically several cm each. All told. these were taking up about a meter of shelf space in my office, as they have for the last 10 years or so (the last one i have is from 2000, which is about when i got more involved in management and had a harder time justifying these kinds of technical conferences).
Today, casting about for a place to put some new books i’d acquired, i looked at these journals and proceedings, and had an epiphany. I googled a few articles: sure enough, they were all on-line. In fact, the journal became open access in 2009, and they’ve put all the back issues on the web as well. The ACL Anthology hosts thousands of computational linguistics papers, and they’ve provided digital versions of all the proceedings i have (and many many others). So all of a sudden, i realized i had a meter of useless paper volumes on my bookshelf.
You might wonder what took me so long. I do too: I guess one answer is simply inertia. I’ve had these volumes on my shelves for so long i hadn’t gotten around to reconsidering whether i really needed them. I’m also an information omnivore, so i’ve always been reluctant to just give them up (though i couldn’t tell you the last time i actually cracked the cover on one). In part, I suppose another reason is that having a shelf of professional journals and proceedings makes me feel smarter (silly though that sounds when said out loud): it’s evidence of many years of commitment to the field. In the digital age, these markers of industriousness are becoming as scarce as the artifacts themselves.
Some of these volumes have moved with me many times, from Los Angeles to Massachusetts when i took my first research position with BBN (1987), through various office moves there, when we moved to Maryland in 2000 (and more internal moves there), and when we moved to the northwest to work for Logos in 2007. That first COLING volume has been on my office bookshelf as long as i’ve had an office with bookshelves! But, with ever more information on-line (and much more findable and useful there), new books that need to find a home, and doubtless other office moves ahead … it’s time to let go and continue the march into the digital future.