Blind Man with a Pistol

The Library in the New Age

Socio-historian Robert Darnton looks at the fate of the library in the age of Google Books.

Information has never been stable. That may be a truism, but it bears pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively—and even how to appreciate old books.

An historical approach to technology is always enlightening. While media critic superstars like Marshall McLuhan tend toward deterministic conclusions—that is, that technology changes our lives—history tends to indicate the opposite. My favourite such study, Raymond Williams’ Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974), argues that mass communication must be understood materialistically: “broadcasting,” Williams argues, “was developed not only within a capitalist society but specifically by the capitalist manufacturers of the technological apparatus.” He notes that the technology for broadcasting existed long before it was supposed to have “changed the world” and in fact, when broadcasting did come into wide usage by society, there wasn’t actually anything to show. “It is not only that the supply of broadcasting facilities preceded the demand,” he notes, “it is that the means of communication preceded their content.” So too with the Internet.  The technology existed in the ARPANET project as early as 1969, the “Web” from 1981. But it’s difficult to argue that the current cultural form of information technology owes its origin to those dates.

So what Darnton notes in a wonderful mixture of romantic nostalgia for the olfactory and tactile pleasures of the book (“I may expose myself to accusations of romanticizing or of reacting like an old-fashioned, ultra-bookish scholar who wants nothing more than to retreat into a rare book room.” Darnton admits. “I plead guilty”) and cautious celebration of the technological benefit the Internet affords, is that things are like they always were, only moreso:

the strongest argument for the old-fashioned book is its effectiveness for ordinary readers. Thanks to Google, scholars are able to search, navigate, harvest, mine, deep link, and crawl (the terms vary along with the technology) through millions of Web sites and electronic texts. At the same time, anyone in search of a good read can pick up a printed volume and thumb through it at ease, enjoying the magic of words as ink on paper. No computer screen gives satisfaction like the printed page. But the Internet delivers data that can be transformed into a classical codex. It already has made print-on-demand a thriving industry, and it promises to make books available from computers that will operate like ATM machines: log in, order electronically, and out comes a printed and bound volume. Perhaps someday a text on a hand-held screen will please the eye as thoroughly as a page of a codex produced two thousand years ago.

Since the Internet is an extension, rather than a replacement of the book (and here, Darnton is channelling McLuhan), we abandon the book at our peril. Rather, it is the library that must act as distributor and aggregator of the texts we seek.

Meanwhile, I say: shore up the library. Stock it with printed matter. Reinforce its reading rooms. But don’t think of it as a warehouse or a museum. While dispensing books, most research libraries operate as nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses. They acquire data sets, maintain digital re-positories, provide access to e-journals, and orchestrate information systems that reach deep into laboratories as well as studies. Many of them are sharing their intellectual wealth with the rest of the world by permitting Google to digitize their printed collections. Therefore, I also say: long live Google, but don’t count on it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.

Surely, such a conclusion appeases the romantic and the tech-nut in all of us.

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The other advantage of books, of course, is that they can be read directly by humans, no additional interface or reader required. One of the recurring subjects of Information Management organizations (like ARMA International) is the warning that unless organizations update their digital information, even archived information to the newest formats, they may find them unreadable within a decade. Finding a series of lectures recorded on beta tapes aren’t very useful now. Neither is text files saved on floppy disks.

Books don’t date themselves in this way.

Comment by Kuri

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