"Schools should continue to require library research so they can see how old folks used to Google stuff."
June 1, 2008 9:12 PM   Subscribe

The continuity I have in mind has to do with the nature of information itself or, to put it differently, the inherent instability of texts. In place of the long-term view of technological transformations, which underlies the common notion that we have just entered a new era, the information age, I want to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable. Let's begin with the Internet and work backward in time.
The Library in the New Age by Robert Darnton, historian and Director of the Harvard Library. A wide-ranging overview of the status of libraries in the modern world, touching on such subjects as: journalist poker games, French people liking the smell of books, bibliography at Google, news dissemination in the 18th Century, book piracy and the different texts of Shakespeare. Some responses: Defending the Library of Google, The Future in the Past and Librarians Need a Better Apologetic.
posted by Kattullus (22 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

The post title comes from a comment to the final link.
posted by Kattullus at 9:16 PM on June 1, 2008

I've always liked NTKs take on librarians, "their championing of public access to information in the face of restrictive copyrights making them the dead-tree warez d00ds of the pre-digital era.". And you knwo what? Even now we have google and wiki and whathaveyou libraries still rock, because libraries can get you access to all kinds of shit for free.
posted by Artw at 9:23 PM on June 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

(also the glasses)
posted by Artw at 9:24 PM on June 1, 2008

The killer point:
There are about 543 million volumes in the research libraries of the United States. Google reportedly set its initial goal of digitizing at 15 million. As Google signs up more libraries—at last count, twenty-eight are participating in Google Book Search—the representativeness of its digitized database will improve. But it has not yet ventured into special collections, where the rarest works are to be found. And of course the totality of world literature—all the books in all the languages of the world—lies far beyond Google's capacity to digitize.
There is simply too much to digitize. Online digital libraries like Google Books are adjuncts, enhancements, new branches in the tree of continuity, not replacements, not a new tree. All this hand wringing about Google Books vs Paper Books is entertaining but not really a good question.
posted by stbalbach at 10:38 PM on June 1, 2008

There will never, ever be a replacement for a good and knowledgeable librarian, ever. A good librarian knows something about everything and can point you in the right direction, always. A good reference librarian can give you a bibliography that you should read after an extensive (though you may not have noticed it) reference interview. A good subject-area librarian can point you to sources (oh, and even get them for you with OCLC) that you would never find with Google.

Goddess love Google, for correcting my mis-spellings. And the Google library is impressive indeed but I will still first and always go and talk to a knowledgeable librarian first when needing serious research.

Librarians have been and always will be the information gatekeepers: no, dear, they are not hoarding anything. Librarians, by experience, education and training know where and how to find information faster than... well, pretty much anybody.
posted by blessedlyndie at 1:26 AM on June 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

This just reinforces my decision to become a librarian. Thanks for the links.
posted by nonreflectiveobject at 2:11 AM on June 2, 2008

Incidentally, Robert Darnton is an absolutely brilliant historian whose use of previously-unexploited archives (namely, those of the Société typographique in Neufchatel) revolutionized the study of eighteenth-century France.
posted by nasreddin at 4:12 AM on June 2, 2008

Okay, it's off-topic, but from the article:

But the First Folio cannot simply be compared with the quartos, because every copy of the Folio is different from every other copy. [...] The differences were compounded by at least one hundred stop-press corrections and by the peculiar practices of at least nine compositors who set the copy while also working on other jobs [...]

This right here is what makes the argument that the First Folio spelling and punctuation represent some sort of super-secret acting code or performance score so ridiculous.

I could go on at length, but I left my soapbox at home.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:40 AM on June 2, 2008

Incidentally, Robert Darnton is an absolutely brilliant historian

I'm looking forward to his publication of Les Bohemians. He discovered one of only 6 copies in existence and thinks it something of a minor classic; and looks like a good story.
posted by stbalbach at 6:40 AM on June 2, 2008

(DISCLAIMER: I have a professional dog in this fight ... )

1. Digitization of texts is not about preservation, it is about providing access to information.
2. Good ink printed on good paper still has one of the highest preservation rates around.
3. Darnton's "aspects of a book" are only critical elements when one is researching the book as object, not the book as vehicle.
4. We, librarians and archivists, are not to known for what we know, but for knowing where to find it.
posted by aldus_manutius at 8:22 AM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

It is my firm belief that all librarians in the world belong to a secret society, from the chief librarian of the library of congress down to the librarian at the local elementary school. My research traces this secret society back to the Oracle at Delphi. The fact that librarians have traditionally been women even when men dominated teaching and academia stems from the high priestess unique role at Delphi, which gave them power over kings and generals of their age.

The commonly understood story is that Greek generals would consult the Oracle in advance of war or on sensitive matters of diplomacy, but the hidden history is far more involved. The Pythia, or high priestess, pursued their own clandestine agenda. Using the noxious gases emanating from under their temple, they would drug those who sought the Oracle's counsel, give them the advice on war and diplomacy they sought, but would then also instruct them, under a trance, to deploy forces to secretly collect books, tablets, curios and any other vessels of knowledge and culture from the lands they conquered and return them to Delphi.

For nearly 1500 years, the Oracle amassed a complete and detailed history of the world. With this accumulated knowledge, they began to influence the course of world events from behind the scenes. Their goal was to maintain world peace as best as possible while simultaneously promoting the intellectual progress of the species. Their library became so large that the Library of Alexandria was erected to hold their more secret works. But it was no mere Library, it was a research institution, where acolytes poured over texts and experimented in foreign sciences and extrapolated possible future histories. There were Librarians at Alexandria who were experts in Chinese culture, Amazon tribes, and Vedic mathematics. If Delphi was the Hellenistic CIA, the Library at Alexandria was the NSA. Total knowledge, total understanding of all things at all times.

But as in all great organizations, there was a power struggle. The Oracle had foreseen the ascendancy of a new world power in the guise of a monotheistic religion, unbeholden to the laws and traditions of the Hebrews, that would openly attempt to subsume the rationalistic thought of Aristotle and others within its world view. At the Oracle, the priestess plotted generations ahead to infiltrate the group and subvert it from within (for example, Mary Magdalene was a priest at Delphi, a fact known to the apostles and which earned her the title "whore"). The Librarians at Alexandria were more skeptical, and pushed instead for a more overt conflict of ideas to prevent the yoke of this new religion from falling over the burgeoning empire in Rome.

Ultimately, the librarians lost. When Theodosius banned all pagan religions and insitutions, the Oracle and Delphic quietly closed its doors. Alexandria refused, and was burned to the ground. As the priestesses of Delphi infiltrated the new church

Or so history thought. Instead, the secret itself became buried in a secret.

Nearly all of the volumes from Alexandria survived, but became dispersed across Africa nad Europe. The librarians, deploying the printing technology of the Chinese centuries before Gutenberg's press, made copy after copy of these secret texts, and raised successive generations of students who pursued this apocryphal knowledge, but maintained the secret.

To this day, the librarians hidden work continues, even in the internet age. They patiently and diligently scrub catalogs, bibliographies and databases for any mention of sensitive books, and quietly disappear them. They comb through outdated card catalogs and with deft sleight-of-hand palm certain cards from the shelf, never to be seen again. Are we to be surprised that librarians manned Google Answers in numbers out of their proportion, or that librarians embraced that particular search engine above all others? Am I to believe that Google's vast computing resources are combing through nothing more than myspace and facebook pages? More likely that Google is an organ of this society of librarians. How else does one explain this array of Google's shipping container data centers amassed along a mysterious abruptly terminating highway adjacent to what appears to be an archaeological excavation? From antiquity into the encrypted database, without passing by the public.

I've spent years in pursuit of this hidden life of librarians, and I assure you that this is all true. I've seen the hidden books. Aristotle's Magnetics, Milton's Unreading the Decameron, Franklin's The Treasure of the Metropolis of the Susquehanna Indian. I've seen the original first edition of Thomas and Finney's Calculus, which contains on page 213 a triple integral that when plotted in three dimensions on a modern computer reveals a cave in a mountainside. And I've seen the other "first" edition of this book, which came out year later, with this problem removed.

I've seen much more, and I am sure there is more than we can imagine still to be discovered.

To what dark purpose are these secret texts being put? Is this secret society of librarians our friend or foe? Are our librarians deploying these hidden books, which now amount to entire hidden disciplines, to thwart some greater and darker hidden force? What centuries-long conflict is being waged in card catalogs and in Special Collections?
posted by Pastabagel at 9:38 AM on June 2, 2008 [5 favorites]

PastaBagel, by revealing these Truths, you very life is now forfeit ... {muahahahahaha ... snickergiggle} ... we shall disappear you and your dissertation, never to whiten these blue pages again!
posted by aldus_manutius at 9:59 AM on June 2, 2008

stbalbach: I'm looking forward to his publication of Les Bohemians. He discovered one of only 6 copies in existence and thinks it something of a minor classic; and looks like a good story.

I couldn't decide which Robert Darnton article to post last night, the one I posted or the one about Marquis de Pelleport. I really must look for some books by Darnton.
posted by Kattullus at 10:20 AM on June 2, 2008

Librarianship is guilty of having shied away from the opportunities and challenges of the information economy. The fact is that every social activity is now oriented around information issues. There should be a librarian in every business. But librarians, and particularly library schools, have refused to expand their self-definition beyond traditional libraries. Consequently, librarians have played no part in the great triumphs of the information age: Yahoo, Google, Google Books, etc. Instead of working in the kitchens of the economy, librarians are feeding off the table scraps, trying to save libraries in public schools rather than reorganizing Wall Street. It is truly one of the greatest of missed opportunities.
posted by No Robots at 10:21 AM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hmmm ... don't know where YOU went to library school, No Robots, but your statements certainly don't jibe with my experience ... you might want to let the Special Libraries Association know about those missed opportunities ...
posted by aldus_manutius at 10:32 AM on June 2, 2008

Yes, there are some great jobs posted at SLA. And perhaps there are some good programmes at some library schools. But let me put it to you that the American Library Association is not visible on promoting librarianship as fundamental to all social and economic activity. I mean, why isn't anyone saying that every car dealership should have a librarian? Why is there even any discussion about the absolutely central importance of school libraries? Why are there no librarians at Google? How did so much corporate information work get put into the hands of computer programmers and marketing people? Someone has been asleep at the switch.
posted by No Robots at 10:46 AM on June 2, 2008

No Robots: I don't know where you got your training, but at my alma mater Library Science was coexistent with Information Science, and Infomatics. And it does look like google is searching for people with library science expertise. There is also a fair amount of discussion of school libraries as well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:01 PM on June 2, 2008

Well, I'm actually quite happy to be proved wrong on some of this. All the same, it seems to me that there is a resistance in librarianship to consider fully its enormous philosophical, political, social and economic role in this age of information.
posted by No Robots at 7:53 PM on June 2, 2008

This is intersting. Glad people still appreciate Academic Librarians ( I'm one, actually), and libraries like ours have like hundreds of thousands of $ invested in really really good content (e.g. Lexis Nexis, Science Direct) you just can't get from the public web. Obviously over the past 20 years it's flipped - online is de facto and print is sexy. I saw that coming.
What I find annoying about some of my colleagues it that they do not want to understand the power of machine indexing vs. cataloging by hand - (is like John Henry vs. the Steam Shovel).. and those who still say "don't use Wikipedia for research" (patently ridiculuous).
We'll see what the next 2 decades bring about, and if Google can still do no evil.
posted by celerystick at 8:27 AM on June 3, 2008

celerystick: some of my colleagues it that they do not want to understand the power of machine indexing vs. cataloging by hand

This is what really sticks in my craw. I did all my research on machine indexing, but got nowhere. In fact, I came close to flunking out. I did interview for the doctorate, but when I told the selection committee I wanted to work on overhauling the Library of Congress classification and subject headings, the faculty chair asked, "What's wrong with LC?" I remember one quotation I used in a paper from the 1950's that said that LCSH was too primitive for index cards! And all the while Yahoo and Google are bringing information to the world and making billions doing it. It makes me sick.
posted by No Robots at 11:07 AM on June 3, 2008

I have enormous respect for Darnton, and nothing he writes is ever boring, but a few passages in this article did give me pause -- this, for example, on digitization:

Now, I speak as a Google enthusiast. I believe Google Book Search really will make book learning accessible on a new, worldwide scale, despite the great digital divide that separates the poor from the computerized. It also will open up possibilities for research involving vast quantities of data, which could never be mastered without digitization. As an example of what the future holds, I would cite the Electronic Enlightenment, a project sponsored by the Voltaire Foundation of Oxford. By digitizing the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson -- about two hundred volumes in superb, scholarly editions -- it will, in effect, recreate the transatlantic republic of letters from the eighteenth century. The letters of many other philosophers, from Locke and Bayle to Bentham and Bernadin de Saint-Pierre, will be integrated into this database, so that scholars will be able to trace references to individuals, books and ideas throughout the entire network of correspondence that undergirded the Enlightenment.

Note that phrase -- 'superb, scholarly editions'. Those editions didn't just materialise out of thin air. They were created by a whole academic industry of scholars who put years of work into researching them, universities and grant-awarding bodies who supported these big editorial projects, and university presses who published the results. My worry is that by shifting from print to digital, you may inadvertently remove the scholarly infrastructure that made these 'superb, scholarly editions' possible in the first place. Google Book Search is not a substitute for new research, it's not about creating new content, it's about digitizing existing content, and even a project like the Electronic Enlightenment, for all its immense research potential, is essentially parasitic on the work of an older generation of scholars. It's easy to imagine that the source material we need is already 'out there' somewhere, and that all we have to do is digitize it to make it 'more accessible' -- but that's an illusion. It's not 'out there' until it's been reconstructed by scholars patiently searching the archives, transcribing the manuscripts and annotating the texts.

Then this passage near the end:

Books also give off special smells. According to a recent survey of French students, 43 percent consider smell to be one of the most important qualities of printed books -- so important that they resist buying odorless electronic books. CaféScribe, a French on-line publisher, is trying to counteract that reaction by giving its customers a sticker that will give off a fusty, bookish smell when it is attached to their computers. When I read an old book, I hold its pages up to the light and often find among the fibers of the paper little circles made by drops from the hand of the vatman as he made the sheet -- or bits of shirts and petticoats that failed to be ground up adequately during the preparation of the pulp.

That made me cringe slightly, because it is exactly the sort of thing that gives bibliophiles (like me) a reputation as tiresome old bores. ('A fig, I say, Sir, for your electronic books! No machine can ever reproduce the experience of burying my nose in an old book and inhaling that sweet yet intoxicating aroma of seventeenth-century vellum ..') There are far more practical reasons for wanting to consult print editions, mostly having to do with copy-specific features like ownership inscriptions and marginalia and what they can tell us about the history of the book.

Oh well: I suppose this is Darnton's stump speech that he gives to non-academic audiences on Why The Book Is Not Dead, so I forgive him the cute anecdotes -- it's all in a good cause. But as a serious scholar, he will be aware that it's all more complicated than 'Google is a fantastic resource, but let's not write off the old-fashioned book just yet, eh?' and (as I once said about Anthony Grafton in a similar context) I suspect he may be slightly less of a 'Google enthusiast' than he claims to be.
posted by verstegan at 4:52 PM on June 3, 2008

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