Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Digitizing Libraries: Pragmatist vs. Romantic

I have already expressed my approval of the plan by Google to digitize and make available the books from some of the worlds great research libraries. My joy was, and is, based on the purely pragmatic reason that more access to scholarship online simply makes the job of a researching historian much easier. However, the aesthetic difference between reading a book online and actually reading a real book, of turning pages with my own hands vice a mouse click, is worth considering. As such, pushing the pragmatist aside, the romantic in me was pleased to read this piece by Ben McIntyre. McIntyre views the library as a "social institution" just as much as a repository of written knowledge. As such, the digitization of books probably means a reduction of people actually visiting the stacks. Because of this, he asks, "Are the days of the library as a social organism over?" He answers his own question
Almost certainly not, for reasons practical, psychological and, ultimately, spiritual. Locating a book online is one thing, reading it is quite another, for there is no aesthetic substitute for the physical object; the computer revolution rolls on inexorably, but the world is reading more paper books than ever. Indeed, so far from destroying libraries, the internet has protected the written word as never before, and rendered knowledge genuinely democratic. Fanatics always attack the libraries first, dictators seek to control the literature, elites hoard the knowledge that is power. Shi Huangdi, the Chinese emperor of the 3rd century BC, ordered that all literature, history and philosophy written before the founding of his dynasty should be destroyed. More books were burnt in the 20th century than any other — in Nazi Germany, Bosnia and Afghanistan. With the online library, the books are finally safe, and the biblioclasts have been beaten, for ever.

But the traditional library will also survive, because a library is central to our understanding of what it is to be human. Ever since the first clay tablets were collected in Mesopotamia, Man has wanted not merely to obtain and master knowledge, but to preserve it, to hold it in his hand.


Libraries are not places of dry scholarship but living sensuality. In Love Story Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal get together with the library as backdrop; in Dr Zhivago, Uri and Lara find one another in a library. I have a friend, now a well-known journalist, who became overcome by lust in the British Library and was discovered by a librarian making love behind the stacks in the empty quarter of Humanities with a woman he had met in the tearoom. The librarian was apparently most understanding, and said it happened quite a lot...

Libraries are not just for reading in, but for sociable thinking, exploring, exchanging ideas and falling in love. They were never silent. Technology will not change that, for even in the starchiest heyday of Victorian self-improvement, libraries were intended to be meeting places of the mind, recreational as well as educational....

Just as bookshops have become trendy, offering brain food and cappuccinos, so libraries, under financial and cultural pressure, will have to evolve by more actively welcoming people in to wander and explore. Finding a book online should be the beginning, not the end, of the process of discovery, a peeling back of the first layer: the word library, after all, comes from liber, the inner bark of a tree.
So, while I rejoice at the nearly unlimited knowledge that will be at my fingertips via the computer, I will also be sure to visit the stacks every now and then. There I will revel in the tomes that surround me as I wonder what knowledge, what mystery, each volume holds. I only wish I had the time to read them all.

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