: views from the Hill

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Library in the New Age

The Library in the New Age

by Robert Darnton. (The New York Review of Books. 12 Jun 2008)

Late on this. Just saw a May 2008 link from Robert Berkman's friendfeed.

The article concludes, 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 repositories, 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.

Darnton also says (and I concur, oh, how I concur), 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.

Don't trust the newspapers. Don't trust books. For heaven's sake, don't trust blogs or online news sources or the story that a friend of a friend told your best friend.

Believe, but believe with healthy skepticism because the more I read and the more I know, the more I know what I read is at least twenty percent balderdash and another twenty percent complete fraud. (And despite her protestations to the contrary, the great great whatever great aunt did not trace his nibs' family roots back to Lady Godiva and beyond.)

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