Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ancient-Future Libraries

In a recent New Yorker essay, “Future Reading,” book historian Anthony Grafton makes a number of interesting and helpful observations about books and libraries in the digital age.

Grafton concludes his essay by describing the two ways that we now have to access information:

For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously. No one should avoid the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen. … If you want deeper, more local knowledge, you will have to take the narrower path … The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books (54).

Grafton also draws attention to the fact that libraries are returning to an “ancient model” of “accumulating large holdings and … making and disseminating copies of key texts” (51). In the ancient Near East, libraries (and archives) at Nineveh, Qumran, Caesarea, and elsewhere supported the organically related activities of collecting, reading, interpreting, creating, and disseminating texts. The support of such interrelated activities “became a deep structure of Christian scholarship, forged in late antiquity, then reproduced again and again in the Middle Ages and the early modern period” (Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea [Harvard, 2006], 18).

Soon after Grafton’s New Yorker essay appeared, the Harvard Crimson ran this story: “New Library Director Calls for E-Scholarship.” Book historian Robert Darnton, who until recently was on the faculty at Princeton with Grafton, is now the director of the Harvard University Library. Darnton is eager for libraries to embrace new models of digital dissemination: “I want to continue to strengthen Harvard’s fabulous collections in old printed material … but at the same time I want to help Harvard move into the world of digitized information.” The article highlights a project of his that would “meld the e-book and the ‘old book.’”

It is exciting to see two prominent book historians focusing their attention on the future of books and libraries (both also mention records and archives). When we digitally reformat our historical collections or build institutional repositories for new digital material, we are not doing an entirely new thing. There are historical precedents for such practices—in ancient and medieval librarianship and, in the more recent past, the historical manuscripts tradition—that show us how in the past libraries and archives supported a range of textual activities that enabled the creation, collection, and dissemination of knowledge.

Image: Cassiodorus as Ezra. Ezra Page, Codex Amiatinus, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence.

Link to “Future Reading”: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/11/05/071105fa_fact_grafton

Link to “New Library Director Calls for E-Scholarship”: http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=520414