Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Information and Libraries across the Ages

In a recent New York Review of Books essay, “The Library in the New Age,” Robert Darnton considers change and continuity in our newest information age and the continuing role of research libraries.

In the first section, Darnton looks at the nature of information in the context of the history of communication. Looked at one way, this history can be seen as an accelerating series of fundamental changes—from oral to written communication (which began about 6,000 years ago), from the scroll to the codex (which began about 2,000 years ago), from the scriptorium to the printing press (which began about 500 years ago), and from print to electronic communication (which began about 50 years ago). Looked at another way, this history can be seen as a series of information ages, each of which is characterized by “the inherent instability of texts.” “Instead of firmly fixed documents,” Darnton writes, “we must deal with multiple, mutable texts.” This is true of blogs, newspapers, printed books, and manuscripts.

In the second section, Darnton considers what this means for the role of research libraries. To explore the question, Darnton presents two views—or illusions—relating to the library: the library as a citadel of knowledge, which contains all of it, and the internet as an open space, which provides access to all information. No library has succeeded in becoming a universal repository for all knowledge and, even given the great ambitions of Google Book Search, not everything can or will become available online. Moreover, who will ensure the quality of what is online and preserve it? Research libraries attend to subtle distinctions between manifestations of texts and, unlike technology companies, they last for centuries (and they will continue to preserve their pre-digital collections, which contain information that cannot be represented digitally).

Libraries, therefore, still have a role to collect, provide access to, and preserve information—especially information that is accessible though more complex forms (e.g., manuscript material, rare books, and digital objects). The internet can provide a certain kind of access to information on a broad scale; but it cannot provide access to everything, and this access may be only for the time being. As Anthony Grafton recently argued in a New Yorker essay, there remain two roads to knowledge: “the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen,” and the “narrower path” that leads to reading rooms where “knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books.”

Link to “The Library in the New Age”: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21514.

Image credit: “Books, the Delight of the Soul,” The Librarian's Room, Library of Congress, available from: http://www.loc.gov/jefftour/lc/lc-pnln.html.