What can history teach us, if anything, about Libraries and information and the internet?
Quotes from two books I am reading:
Vienna in the Fin de siècle, with its acutely felt tremors of social and political disintegration, proved one of the most fertile breeding grounds of our century's a-historical culture. Its great intellectual innovators -- in music and philosophy, in economics and architecture, and, of course, in psychoanalysis--all broke, more or less deliberately, their ties to the historical outlook central to the nineteenth century library culture which they had been.
- Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture by Carl E. Schorske
Ahistorical thinking in Internet debates is too ubiquitous and persistent to be written off as ignorance or laziness. It's not that history books are not consulted because our Internet theorists are lazy; rather, it's that history itself is deemed irrelevant, for "the Internet" is seen as representing a distinct rupture with everything that has come before -- a previously unreachable high point of civilization.
- Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here
It's a mashup of history that probably doesn't make much sense. The idea I'd like to investigate is how can libraries, so embedded with history, learn to handle such, um, revolutionary times? I fall to the side of Morozov that the we should view the changes in information technology through the longer lens of history. However, you can't help but realize we're living through some immense changes.
Take, for example, where I work. Fewer than 20 years ago, 16 librarians -- more than a few of them with Phds -- stood waiting to fill patron requests, answer questions and deliver information. Behind that information desk stood a technical staff probably twice as large who spent their days making copies, cataloging information and retrieving it. Today the entire library staff stands around 10, and most patrons communicate their questions electronically, if at all.
Yet the past continues apace. Old reports and technical manuals are still downloaded, even for people doing cutting-edge research. However, they don't need a librarian to access the report. For the employees who have remained through these years in the Library, breaking from the past has been a painful process. What I don't know if that pain is because many of their colleagues are lost to retirement and death. Or, is it the old way of things is just not very relevant to many people? I have to think that a third issue has something to do with it: The Library used to be the center of work at my organization, and now it's just another stop for information.
End of history pronouncements always look a little silly in hindsight. But it's not silly for those who have to live through it.