Every day, it seems, there is another article in the popular press that whittles away at the very meaning of the word “library.” The worst of these conflate what Google is doing with what a library does. (E.g., “The Google Library”.)
There are also those ocassional articles by people of a certain age who grew up with libraries and paper-and-ink books and revere them, but these always strike a hollow note with me. Hollow, first, because they are harkening to the past and not looking for potential benefits of the future. And, second, because our collective choices are seldom driven by nostalgia; they are driven by politics and economics. It is simply unhelpful to do no more than wish for the past.
In this context, I was pleased to read a piece that, though it begins sounding merely nostalgic, turns out to make some important points about the collective choices we seem to be making.
- In Defense of the Memory Theater. By Nathan Schneider. Open Letters Monthly (July 2010)
Schenider isn’t being nostalgic for print and ink. He is homing in on the importance of information control in a world of proprietary devices, proprietary formats, and licenses to read. He is recognizing the importance of libraries that have actual collections that they control (whether digital or paper). He is recognizing the importance of having many specialized collections, not just big “everything” monolithic collections.
Now our job is to figure out how to be cleverer than the search engine; when certain ways of finding information become easy, the knowledge really worth having becomes what those methods don’t turn up, what the crawlers somehow managed to miss. As the Temple of Knowledge comes to look ever more like the Googleplex, public libraries are downsizing their reference desks, presuming that for every query an internet search will suffice.
Libraries absolutely cannot keel over and let Google replace them. They are our collective bookshelves, the memory theater for a community.
What is the relevance to government information? As Schneider says:
Just as a personal bookshelf becomes the extension of one’s body, a democratic society must ensure that its books are held democratically.
By “held” I think he means physically controlled in the OAIS sense of digital libraries. This is about control of information.
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