Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Burning Books, Libraries, and Archives

If one is searching for a good explanation about why the Internet should not be considered the replacement for libraries, you don’t need to look beyond Mark Y. Herring’s Fool’s Gold: Why the Internet Is No Substitute for a Library (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2007). Herring, an academic librarian, grew this book from a request by his boss to develop counterpoints to arguments mustered against the building or expanding of libraries that argued that the riches of the Web negated such enterprises. Herring pulls together every bit of evidence of any use in demonstrating why and how libraries and the Web are different. It is an interesting argument, and one that every information professional and student preparing for a career in the information professions ought to read and reflect upon (but this should be done critically).

Herring’s book is not criticism about the Web, but rather it is an argument about the perception of the Web. “As a tool,” Herring writes, “the Web is useful; as a substitute it spells out a terrible future. Unfortunately, the Web is rarely billed as a tool. Rather, it is being billed all too often as a magic pill to cure all of our diseases” (p. 23). Herring contends that the argument for the Web substituting for libraries only works “if we define knowledge as any bit of datum, right or wrong, factual or not, fraudulent or accurate.” For Herring, this is the definition of information, and, as he argues, “if this is the definition of information that we want, then, yes, the Web should replace all libraries. On the other hand, if knowledge includes something about accuracy, appropriateness, balance and value then the Web cannot arrogate to itself a place of preeminence to knowledge-seekers” (p. 27). The focus on information, as a synonym for knowledge or wisdom, is disconcerting, and this has been a topic of great debate for a number of decades (even pre-dating the Web).

This author builds a good argument, navigating his way through issues like pornography, footnotes and the nature of scholarship, digitization projects, e-books, the predictions of the paperless office, and the implications for reading and literacy. Herring is excellent at laying side-by-side claims and present reality. For example, when he considers preservation matters, Herring laments, “We have known about the inability of Web-based information to be preserved in anything approaching perdurability, and we have our rush to digitize everything” (p. 164). However, such critics of digitization and preservation often overlook motives, real technical problems with preserving any medium, and the reality of resources and other responsibilities. I tried to deal, apparently not very successfully given the lack of citation, with these problems in my own book-length response to Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold.

Weighing a lot of evidence, Herring asks a fundamental question about the role and the future of libraries, suggesting that “requiring libraries to be as lean and as nondescript as the Web solves nothing. Rather than bemoaning the cost of libraries. . . , we should be celebrating the value they add to the research environment. After all, it was they that enabled our intellectual history from the beginning. Are we positively certain it is now time to replace them with so weak an ersatz as the Web?” (p. 128). Few would argue that this is not a useful point to mull over. However, others would argue just as strenuously that the Web opens up new opportunities for scholarship worth supporting as well.

However, I worry that there may be a weak link in Herring’s case. In Herring’s notes, he cites Nicholson Baker’s 2001 book Double Fold. Herring states, “Yes, many librarians have found fault with Mr. Baker.” “It’s true that Mr. Baker can be impugned on a number of points. Still, his basic premise remains inexpugnable. Those who should have known better did not do better” (p. 167, note 4). This citation supports Herring’s reference to the embracing by librarians of microfilm – suggesting that even with the limitations of such reformatting “some librarians rushed to meet the new technology as the new messiah by discarding one-of-a-kind documents” (p. 10). What Herring misses here, of course, is that the motivations of individuals espousing new information technologies are more often presented as solutions to preservation, access, reading literacy, and other challenges. They are not intending to join the ranks of book burners, even if they are portrayed in such a fashion by those who reject the idea of the e-book or who love the printed book as object and as an artifact with scholarly value.

So, what about deliberate book burning and library destruction? Lucien X. Polastron, in his Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History, translated by Jon E. Graham (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2007), provides an excellent catalogue of library destruction over several thousand years. Polastron also provides a sense of how such deliberate destruction differs from the kinds of issues presented by the World Wide Web, information technologies, and e-books. For example, Polastron states, “The book is the double of the man, and burning it is the equivalent of killing him” (p. x). This simple statement, laden with all sorts of interesting implications, suggests one reason why books, libraries, and archives are often targeted for destruction. However, this is not the intention of those advocating digitization or espousing e-books over print.

Polastron is no fan of the Web, writing that “In the eyes of the professional who surfs it every day, like a miner in the depths with battered fingers, almost all of it appears to consist of slag, plagiarism, and dead skins from sites that have molted – a vertiginous demonstration of stupidity and vulgarity” (p. 283). However, this author nevertheless recognizes the value of the Internet for future research. In discussing the new Library of Alexandria project, Polastron acknowledges the benefit of filling this library with digital books: “It so happens that the majority of today’s (and almost all of tomorrow’s) scholars have no need to travel to conduct their investigations: their screens tell them everything” (p. 298). The careful use of digitization offers many interesting enhancements to scholarship and benefits to citizens outside of scholarly circles; why is the Web, with all its junk, portrayed so differently than libraries, repositories also holdings lots of materials that never should have been printed?

What disturbs me about Polastron’s book is that he too buys into the arguments posed by Nicholson Baker about the library profession’s efforts (ill-fated according to Baker and his supporters) to preserve books and other materials via microforms and other reformatting approaches. “The most depressing information about this bogus, supposedly correct way to preserve collections is that despite the assurances of the teeth pullers that accompany its advocacy,” writes Polastron, “the plastic support materials of the microfiche and microfilm are perfectly perishable themselves and are already deteriorating” (p. 280). Polastron worries about the continuing efforts to deal with every new technology as a preservation solution or challenge: “This is the source of the grandiose paradox of spiraling, infinite expenditures that in no way relate to the cost of the original and that result from the decision to replace the paper book with its copy on another material – however insecure such replacement might be. Nevertheless, the transformation of life into bytes marches on and nothing can stop it” (p. 281). Just as some lamented the move from scroll to codex and others from manuscript to printed book, we have individuals lamenting the shift from print to digital information. However, the point in all this is that librarians, archivists, and other information professionals need to work together to ensure that the new digital forms represent enhancements to the way society can tap into its legacy of information and evidence.