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Posts Tagged ‘Libraries

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”*…

The redoubtable Robert Darnton contemplates our technological present and future– and what they might mean for libraries and books…

Information is exploding so furiously around us and information technology is changing at such bewildering speed that we face a fundamental problem: How to orient ourselves in the new landscape? What, for example, will become of research libraries in the face of technological marvels such as Google?

How to make sense of it all? I have no answer to that problem, but I can suggest an approach to it: look at the history of the ways information has been communicated. Simplifying things radically, you could say that there have been four fundamental changes in information technology since humans learned to speak.

the pace of change seems breathtaking: from writing to the codex, 4,300 years; from the codex to movable type, 1,150 years; from movable type to the Internet, 524 years; from the Internet to search engines, nineteen years; from search engines to Google’s algorithmic relevance ranking, seven years; and who knows what is just around the corner or coming out the pipeline?

Each change in the technology has transformed the information landscape, and the speed-up has continued at such a rate as to seem both unstoppable and incomprehensible. In the long view—what French historians call la longue durée—the general picture looks quite clear—or, rather, dizzying. But by aligning the facts in this manner, I have made them lead to an excessively dramatic conclusion. Historians, American as well as French, often play such tricks. By rearranging the evidence, it is possible to arrive at a different picture, one that emphasizes continuity instead of change. 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.

In 2006 Google signed agreements with five great research libraries—the New York Public, Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, and Oxford’s Bodleian—to digitize their books. Books in copyright posed a problem, which soon was compounded by lawsuits from publishers and authors. But putting that aside, the Google proposal seemed to offer a way to make all book learning available to all people, or at least those privileged enough to have access to the World Wide Web. It promised to be the ultimate stage in the democratization of knowledge set in motion by the invention of writing, the codex, movable type, and the Internet.

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… But their success does not prove that Google Book Search, the largest undertaking of them all, will make research libraries obsolete. On the contrary, Google will make them more important than ever.

[Darnton makes a compelling eight-point argument, concluding…]

… I say: shore up the library. Stock it with printed matter. Reinforce its reading rooms. But don’t think of it as a warehouse or a museum. While dispensing books, most research libraries operate as nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses. They acquire data sets, maintain digital repositories, provide access to e-journals, and orchestrate information systems that reach deep into laboratories as well as studies. Many of them are sharing their intellectual wealth with the rest of the world by permitting Google to digitize their printed collections. Therefore, I also say: long live Google, but don’t count on it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Library in the New Age,” from @RobertDarnton in @nybooks.

See also: “American Literature is a History of the Nation’s Libraries” (source of the image above).

And apposite: “The Most Influential Invention” (paper)…

* Groucho Marx


As we’re careful not to throw babies out with the bathwater, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1789 that Boston publisher Isaiah Thomas and Company published what is generally considered to be the first American novel: 24-year-old William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature, which sold (poorly) for the price of 9 shillings.

Title page of the first edition (source)

“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation”*…

An opportunity to learn from one of the best: Pirkko Lindberg on Finalnd’s public libraries…

Library services are the most used cultural services in Finland, 50 % of all citizens use the library at least once a month and 20 % use it weekly. A national user inquiry from 2013 showed that experiences of the users according the benefits of the library are remarkable. Nine out of ten respondents told that libraries have made their life better. Finnish people are also heavy library users, last year my library, Tampere City Library, had 22.5 lends/inhabitant. Lending is not decreasing, for example children´s loans went up 6 % last year!

Finland is one of the few countries in the world that has own Library Act, the law that defines tasks and official guidelines to public library`s work. The first Finnish Library Act was published 1928 and it has been renewed several times during decades. The Act must live and develop with the society and it has to reflect surrounding environment and changes in the society. Digitization, economic crises and the changes in the municipalities requires authorities to update the Library Act in Finland…

The new act enhances in the new way libraries’ tasks in the society. The act´ s goal is to promote among other things citizen´s equal possibilities to civilization and culture, possibilities to lifelong learning, active citizenship and democracy. To implement these goals the baselines are commonality, diversity and multiculturalism…

License to cure – the new Finnish Library Act gives a mandate for better citizenship: “New Library Act and New Strategy for Finnish Public Libraries from @IFLA.

See also: “Light and enlightenment: libraries in Finnish cultural identity” (source of the image– the third-floor reading room in the Helsinki Library– above)

* Walter Cronkite


As we check it out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1836 that disaster befell a very specialized “library”: a fire destroyed the U.S. Patent Office (which shared quarters in Blodget’s Hotel with the Post Office). All records of nearly 10,000 patents issued over 46 years– all the patents issued to that date– were lost, most forever, along with around 7,000 patent models filed with them. All patents from prior to the fire were listed later as X-Patents by the office (having been reconstructed by getting copies of the approved applications from inventors).

In response to the fire, Congress made the Patent Office (which had been part of the Post Office) its own organization under the United States Department of State. Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, its first Commissioner, immediately began construction of a new fire-proof building, that was not completed until 1864. But a fire in 1877 destroyed the west and north wing of the new building and caused even more damage.

Blodget’s Hotel with stagecoach parked in front, in around 1800s—before 1836 Great Fire (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 15, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance”*…

The noble but undervalued craft of maintenance could, Alex Vuocolo explains, help preserve modernity’s finest achievements, from public transit systems to power grids, and serve as a useful framework for addressing climate change and other pressing planetary constraints…

… If you start talking with engineers about maintenance, somebody always brings up Incan rope bridges. Maybe you’ve seen an illustration or a digital rendering in a Hollywood movie. They’re the color of hay and hang with a bit of slack over rivers and canyons in Peru’s rugged terrain. Made from ichu grass threaded into progressively denser and denser bundles, they were ritualistically maintained by ancient Peruvians. They lasted for centuries. Most are long gone now, though at least one has been preserved for posterity as an infrastructural artifact, just like the R32 at the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn.

It’s hard to imagine a modern ritual that would be equal to the task of perpetually renewing steel bridges, concrete highways and cement buildings. It would require an entirely new industrial paradigm. One label for such a system is “circular economy,” which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which funds research on the topic, defines as “an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.”

The concept dates to the 1960s and the work of economist Kenneth E. Boulding, but most of us are more familiar with a related slogan that emerged from the environmental movement of the 1970s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Those have been the guiding principles for the green movement for much of the past half-century, informing everything from municipal recycling programs to efficiency standards for toilets to lifestyle movements calling for “zero-impact living.”

Maintain is notably missing from the triplet, perhaps because it’s difficult to reconcile with sustainability’s implicit emphasis on reduction and restraint. By contrast, maintenance is about keeping things — sometimes large, intensively built things like skyscrapers and subway cars that might be difficult to imagine in the biodegradable utopias of the most gung-ho environmentalists. Ultimately, reduction is prioritized. We must not hold onto things. We must let go like good Buddhists, as industrial civilization becomes merely a painful, transient phase in human history, passing out of us like bad karma.

There is tension in the question of whether to build objects more intensively, so that they last longer, or to recognize that some things cannot endure and thus should be designed that way. There’s no hope for a paper plate in the long run, for example. It’s designed to enter the waste stream as cheaply and easily as possible. Conversely, a toaster could last for decades if maintained properly, assuming the manufacturer hasn’t built obsolescence into it (as is often the case).

More complex objects and built environments, like a transit system or a housing development, compound questions over what should last and what cannot. How do we create systems that can address these questions on their own terms?

The work of maintenance is ultimately a way of parsing and knowing a thing and deciding, over and over, what it’s worth. “Maintenance should be seen as a noble craft,” said [Louis] Rossmann, [owner of a computer repair shop in New York City and a popular Youtuber] “It should be seen as something that teaches people not just how to repair, but how to think.”

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Disappearing Art Of Maintenance,” from @AlexVuocolo in @NoemaMag.

* Kurt Vonnegut


As we take care, we might recall that it was on this date in 1876, during the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, and at the end of a three-day “Convention of Librarians,” 103 librarians (90 men and 13 women) signed a register as charter members of the American Library Association. The oldest library association in the world, It has grown into the largest.


“Living with those who have lived and the companionship of those who are no longer alive… archives are a kind of site in the sense of an archaeological site”*…

Inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s Players. The papers of both writers are collected at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas

Why do the archives of so many great writers end up in Texas? D.T. Max dives into what is, arguably, America’s “hottest” literary archive, and chronicles the acquisition strategy of its director…

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the literary archive of the University of Texas at Austin, contains thirty-six million manuscript pages, five million photographs, a million books, and ten thousand objects, including a lock of Byron’s curly brown hair. It houses one of the forty-eight complete Gutenberg Bibles; a rare first edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel, thought poorly printed, and which they suppressed; one of Jack Kerouac’s spiral-bound journals for “On the Road”; and Ezra Pound’s copy of “The Waste Land,” in which Eliot scribbled his famous dedication: “For E. P., miglior fabbro, from T. S. E.” Putting a price on the collection would be impossible: What is the value of a first edition of “Comus,” containing corrections in Milton’s own hand? Or the manuscript for “The Green Dwarf,” a story that Charlotte Brontë wrote in minuscule lettering, to discourage adult eyes, and then made into a book for her siblings? Or the corrected proofs of “Ulysses,” on which James Joyce rewrote parts of the novel? The university insures the center’s archival holdings, as a whole, for a billion dollars.

The current director of the center is Thomas Staley. Seventy-one, and a modernist scholar by training, he is mercurial and hard-driving. Amid the silence of the center’s Reading Room, he often greets visiting scholars with a resonant slap on the back. In college, at a Jesuit school in Colorado, Staley pitched in a summer baseball league, specializing in a slow, sinking curve. His “crafty pitch,” as he calls it, was good enough to attract the attention of professional scouts. The Ransom Center, under Staley’s leadership, easily outmaneuvers rivals such as Yale, Harvard, and the British Library. It operates more like a college sports team, with Staley as the coach—an approach that fits the temperament of Texas. “People take a special pride here in winners,” Staley says. “They like success.” (After the Ransom bought its Gutenberg Bible, the center sent the Bible on a victory lap, displaying it at libraries, museums, and universities around the state.)…

A fascinating look into the (surprisingly competitive) world of literary archives: “Final Destination,” from @dtmax in @NewYorker.

(One archive that is not at the Ransom Center is that of Lou Reed. His widow and executor Laurie Anderson had originally intended to house the papers, tapes, and memorabilia there, but changed her mind when the Texas legislature passed a law allowing the open carry of hand guns on state college campuses. They are now at the New York Public Library– and the subject of an exhibit at The Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.)

* John Berger


As we turn every page, we might send archival birthday greetings to Henry Clay Folger; he was born on this date in 1857. A businessman and philanthropist, he founded (with with his wife, Emily Jordan Folger) the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., an independent research library (and archive) that houses the world’s largest collection of the printed works of William Shakespeare, and is a primary repository for rare materials from the early modern period (1500–1750) in Britain and Europe. The library is privately endowed, and is administered by the trustees of Folger’s alma mater, Amherst College.


“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected”*…

Friedrich Strass, Der Strom der Zeiten, 1803 [source/zoomable version]

Readers may recall an earlier post on John B. Sparks’ Histomap, a well-known 1931 attempt to visualize the 4,000 year history of global power. Public Domain Review takes a look at Histomap‘s ancestor/inspiration, Friedrich Strass’ Der Strom der Zeiten (published in 1803), and its influence…

In his foundational textbook Elements, the Alexandrian mathematician Euclid defined a line as “breadthless length” — a thing with only one dimension. That’s what lines can do to history when used to plot events: they condense its breadth into pure motion, featuring only those people and places that serve as forces thrusting it forwards along an infinite axis. Early in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Strass proposed a different way to visualize time’s flow. A Prussian historian and schoolteacher, he published his chronological chart in 1803, a massive diagram titled Der Strom der Zeiten oder bildliche Darstellung der Weltgeschichte von den altesten Zeiten bis zum Ende des achtzehnden Jahrhunderts (The stream of the times or an illustrated presentation of world history from the most ancient times until the eighteenth century). The linear timelines that Strass resisted, like those inspired by Joseph Priestley, “implied a uniformity in the processes of history that was simply misleading”, write Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg. Strass’ stream, by contrast, allowed historical events to “ebb and flow, fork and twist, run and roll and thunder.” It would spawn several imitations as the century drew on…

Capturing history in its organic unfolding: “The Stream of Time,” from @PublicDomainRev. See the original at the David Rumsey Map Collection.

* Reif Larsen


As we contemplate chronology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1800 that the Library of Congress was established. James Madison has first proposed a national library in 1783. But it wasn’t until 1800, when (on this date) President John Adams signed signed an act of Congress providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington, that the deed was done. The Act appropriated $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress … and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them.” Books were ordered from London, creating a collection consisting of 740 books and three maps, which were housed in the new United States Capitol.

But in 1814, during the War of 1812, British forces burned the Capitol Building, and with it, the the collection (by then, around 3,000 volumes). The Library as we know it was created from those ashes. Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal library– 6,487 books– as a replacement, Congress accepted, and the Library of Congress grew from there.

The Capitol Building, which housed the Library of Congress, after being burned by the British [source: Library of Congress]
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