E-story vs. history

Spanish painting from the 1400s by Pedro Berruguete

Spanish painting from the 1400s by Pedro Berruguete showing the miracle of Fanjeaux (source)

Recently, in a local newspaper1, I read that in 2035, my County Library “will only buy e-books”. It is important to be clear that the library the article was speaking of is a university library devoted to human sciences. In the following lines, while bringing together facts of the present and the past, I’ll try to figure out what such libraries will become if we follow this technophilic trend.

I am a computer geek, but I can’t stop thinking
Before developing any argument, I want the reader to be sure that the man who writes these lines isn’t “technophobic” at all. I love computing, I spent all my teenage with IBM PCs and until recently I was coder and web developer. I’m a computer nerd as well as a sci-fi lover. I hope I’ve made myself quite clear…

Human intelligence
A library is not a warehouse. In a library, books are selected by librarians who develop thematic collections. Doing this, librarians favor some sources and reject others, the same way a gardener plants in and plants out species to make up an elegant and balanced arrangement. That’s the first point: libraries are the works of human intelligence.

Freedom of thought
In most university libraries, librarians have the full responsibility of their books. It means that they are entitled to do what they consider to be good for their readership and also for the consistency of their collections. They are responsible for their diversity and quality; for this, libraries need to stay as much as possible independent of politics and short-sighted economy. This way, libraries might be considered as tools for democracy and freedom of thought.

Historical persective
There’s a huge difference between university libraries devoted to “hard” and “soft” sciences. Their difference lies in the objects they deal with, and also in the way “soft” scholars and “hard” scientists work. For the latter ones, the newest articles are the first to be read, because they probably present the most accurate results. Thus, for “hard” science, topicality is one of the highest virtues. On the other hand, for “soft” sciences, newness is important too, but not that much. In human sciences, the long history of a discipline (e.g. philosophy, sociology, theology, etc.) is much more important for a scholar than the latest paper. It’s only through the knowledge and analysis of the sedimentation of her/his discipline that a researcher in human sciences can hope to get results and esteem of her/his peers. That’s why scientific librarians specialized in human sciences need to select, collect and preserve data from the past. Some are handwritten on vellum, some carved in wood, some have been typeset on rag paper, and some are only available on electronic devices. Such librarians—I mean those working in human sciences—are specialists of the present… and the past: they need a sense of historical perspective.

A question of power
If tomorrow we only buy e-books, these e-books will be stored on servers. But why should these servers stay into the buildings of today’s libraries? The e-books will more likely “dwell” in the cloud of all the web servers around the world. Thus, there won’t be the need of local libraries anymore: one cloud-based meta-library will be enough for entire mankind. The cloud will store monographs and it already stores lots of scientific journals and revues. The local business ecosystem will be replaced by global exocentric powers led by all-powerful Internet corporations and few titanic publishing houses. Throughout the whole human history, the ones who took possession of the knowledge where the same to rule the world; information is the Holy Grail, and its possession is a question of power.

In conclusion, if the universities are ready to leave the construction of their knowledge to the sole responsibility of computer algorithms (i.e. bots using tags and search engine indexing to filter articles and books); if they prefer giving up their independence to let global economics rule scientific production; if they consider that the most recent articles resulting of the scholarly publishing fever are more important than books published hundred years ago (and which aren’t available on Google Books for copyright reasons); and if universities prefer putting all their eggs in the basket of a few foreign multinational companies, we may soon witness a replay of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. But this time we will know whose fault it is.

  1. «Le passage aux livres numérisés devrait aussi économiser de la place. En 2035, ils représenteront même la totalité des acquisitions.», 24 heures, 21st-22nd January 2012, p. 13.