23 Aug 2023
Artificial Intelligence and Rare Books

Dear readers, the silence of this blog has lasted too long!

Since our latest exchanges, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge (notwithstanding the current drought in Europe). Yes, the dramatic days of sanitary confinement are long gone and The Love of Books in the Time of Covid-19, a section of this blog designed to make my (and your) isolation less painful, is already an old memory. But there is also the unparalleled frenzy of the modern world, which quickly replaces one anguish with another and which, after having sounded the tocsin in the four corners of the globe, has already moved on to many other things.

"Tempus fugit". One can wonder if it is time that is running away , or if it is not rather us.

As I speak, it is the so-called "Artificial Intelligence" (AI) that is in the news. The most famous of them, whose slightly robotic name seems to be feared to become as immortal as Plato's, Shakespeare's or Einstein's, has just been declared persona non grata in Italy - after having been banned from four countries well known for their unparalleled role as Usual Suspects in international politics: China, North Korea, Iran and Russia. Italy must be credited with courage - bordering on temerity - for joining such league. But it is not alone, in our democracies, in worrying about the progress of artificial intelligence. Almost at the same time, some well-known billionaires, and others less well known, have just signed a petition to demand the "temporary suspension" of artificial intelligence developments, on the grounds that it would threaten the balance of the world. One can only dream when one thinks of the place these gentlemen have taken in the flood of technologies that have purely and simply revolutionized our lives (and not always for the better) over the last thirty years.

This blog is not intended to be a militant forum and I hope that those of you who have a different perception of what I am talking about in the previous paragraph will forgive me for not being able to be their champion on this subject. Fortunately, my purpose is not to be polemical: I'd rather like to address a question on which I have a little more experience: the place of artificial intelligence in our world of bibliophiles.

The history of bibliographic science is that of a slow blossoming, allowing the passage from an almost indiscriminate list of books to the elaboration of extremely well-documented directories covering, in a more or less specific manner, a thousand aspects of old and rare books. Authors, themes, places and dates of printing, printing workshops, print runs and papers, illustrators, translators, bindings, origins, etc. The list is long, so vast is the universe of printed books since their origin.
For example, are you familiar with the National Union Catalogue? It is an extraordinary publishing project that lists all the books printed before 1956 that are in public and university preservation libraries in the United States. I remember when we used to consult it in the bookstore with a bulky, prehistoric microfiche reader that reproduced the entire seven hundred and fifty-four folio volumes of the printed edition.

Computer technology has made an invaluable contribution to this Benedictine effort to classify books. Today, thanks to the development of the Internet, not only can we consult many national union catalogs, offering a broader perspective than the National Union Catalog, but we can often search the contents of the books themselves. And now the irruption of artificial intelligence is expanding the possibilities induced by computing exponentially, bringing extremely significant advances to these research tools.
Indeed, character recognition, the detection of complex linguistic patterns and the shuffling of gigantic amounts of information, allow us today to make sensational discoveries that would have been impossible only a few years ago.

Two months ago, it was announced that an anonymous manuscript play kept in the National Library of Madrid was attributed to the great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. This result was obtained with the help of several artificial intelligence tools, which were able to decipher the manuscript and compare it to their database of linguistic models.

At my humble level, I can only be pleased to see that the knowledge of old and rare books is acquiring new dimensions that open new doors. What can the opponents of artificial intelligence say about this? I find it a great pity, for my part, to think that with our conventional bibliographic tools this manuscript of Lope de Vega would still be sleeping, ignored by all, at the bottom of a reserve.

I have a little personal anecdote on the subject.

A few months ago, the Syndicat de la Librairie Ancienne et Moderne honored me with a "bookseller portrait". I was invited to describe my career path and my aspirations in the exciting world of rare book selling, and so I devoted a first paragraph to evoking my life with antiquarian books "since childhood".

Antiquarian books have accompanied my life since childhood. If the bookshop initially founded by my parents in 1969 in Paris was a store located on rue Gay-Lussac, they soon afterwards made the choice to work at home, which filled our successive houses (my parents having moved many times) with old bindings, brochures, bundles of documents and manuscript jumble of all kinds. This did not make me a bibliophile in short pants, for I was first a reader and my curiosity towards old books was only awakened in adulthood, but their silent presence at my side from an early age had the effect of establishing a kind of natural familiarity between us. Continuing my life among books was neither a choice nor a vocation, but rather what I would call "a way of being".

So what does this have to do with artificial intelligence, you might ask? Well, here it is:

I was recently alerted by Google that a rare book kept at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon was associated with my name in the Google Books records. As you know, this powerful company has undertaken to digitize a large number of books kept in public collections around the world, making their content available to the public. Thanks to a very advanced technology of character recognition, it also allows to index the content of these books, and even the handwritten inscriptions they contain.

The picture below was taken from Google Books, which spotted my signature on one of the endpapers of this book. Did the artificial intelligence of Google Books guess that I was just a child when I wrote my name in pencil on this ancient book? Does it have an imagination? Can it see me as I do? Sitting on the floor, sticking out my tongue and writing my name on an ancient book borrowed from my parents (sacrilege!), an ancient book that my parents would later sell, without realizing my misdeed, to the Lyon Municipal Library. Its curator at the time, Mr. Parguez, was one of their most faithful customers... Can artificial intelligence tell such a story? I can't help but doubt it.

What I can tell you without doubting it for a single second, in any case, (paraphrasing Guillaumet rescued from the Andes, for those who have read Saint-Exupéry), is that the emotion I felt while discovering this clumsily written line... no machine will ever be able to feel it.

And I can't help but smile when I think that being in my fifties, after more than thirty years in the business and thousands of rare books whose paths have passed through my hands, Google Books associates me with only one ancient book, the one on which I wrote my name when I was barely five years old! How ironic...

What about you? Artificial intelligence and rare books, what do you think?

A few links :

An anonymous manuscript theatre play ascribed to Lope de Vega

SLAM's bookseller portrait

The Google Books digitized copy of the Library of Lyon
posted by  Julien at  11:34 | permalink | comments [7]

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