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, August 25, 2008

Reinventing Knowledge

We are very accustomed to hearing or reading the self-congratulating messages that we presently live in THE Information Age. Ian F. McNeely with Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2008) provides an easy to read historical analysis of that claim identifying the library, monastery, university, Republic of Letters, disciplines, and the laboratory as the major means for generating and using new knowledge. While the authors focus on the Western tradition, they also trace the influence of that tradition in non-Western cultures. And near the beginning they suggest that doing this kind of analysis corrects our view of new digital information systems: “We risk committing a serious error by thinking that cheap information made universally available through electronic media fulfills the requirements of a democratic society for organized knowledge. Past generations had to win knowledge by using their wits, and never took what they knew for granted. Recalling their labor and travail is, if anything, more important than ever if we are to distinguish what is truly novel about the ‘information age’ from what is transient hype” (p. xx). Towards the end of the book, McNeely and Wolverton firmly state that “Promoters of the vaunted ‘information age’ often forget that knowledge has always been about connecting people, not collecting information” (p. 271). And if one walks away from reading the book with nothing other than this idea, the time will have been well spent.

There is not much that one will find that is surprising in this volume. They start with an examination of the origins of the ancient library, while also considering the emergence of writing systems, the notion of the museum, and the focus on approaches (such as collation, translation, and synthesis) to scholarship, and the early proponents and shapers of the library. The authors then move through the role of the monastery (the “first institution of knowledge specifically adapted to the absence of civilization, to the wilderness” [p. 51]), the establishment of the university in the twelfth century, the Republic of Letters (the “international community of learning stitched together initially by handwritten letters in the mail and later by printed books and journals” [p. 122]), the beginning of disciplines in the eighteenth century, and, finally, the laboratory with the rise of science in the late nineteenth century. It is the laboratory, they argue, that “will continue to dominate the life of learning,” “reshaping the basic missions of other institutions, pushing some toward obsolescence, giving others a new lease on life” (p. 253). It is pulling all this together, in a coherent interpretative framework, which makes the book particularly useful.

Although there is nothing in this volume specifically focusing on the archive, the authors often allude to preservation as a critical function. In stating the book’s purpose, the authors say that “it traces the production, preservation, and transmission of everything deemed worth knowing in what has become the ‘Western’ tradition” (p. xiv). When comparing the role of the monasteries and later scholars producing manuscript and printed texts, McNeely and Wolverton indicates that the monasteries “first originated to preserve the past, the second [the Republic of Letters] to shape the future; the first literally cloisters knowledge from the profane world, the second embraces and seeks to reform that world” (p. 141). Archivists reading this volume might feel slighted, but it would be a good idea for them to reflect on just what role they have played in shaping new knowledge (except perhaps for knowledge about the past). Libraries and museums, institutions McNeely and Wolverton do mention, possess a critical archival function, but that does not shine through in this book.