The Future in the Past

I finally got around to reading Robert Darnton’s essay on the Library in the New Age in the New York Review of Books, and was pleased with the conclusion both reaffirming the traditional importance of the research library and expressing some enthusiasm for the abilities of digitization projects such as Google Books to further scholarly research. He notes in the essay that words printed on paper is the best known long term storage medium, and that’s something for us to consider for the future as well as the past.

A month ago I read a post at Gypsy Librarian summarizing an article speculating about how much would be lost for libraries if some sort of disaster wiped out our electricity. (The article is also discussed at Logical Operator.) Given a sufficient enough world energy crisis and I suppose that future is plausible even if improbable, though if we enter some sort of Mad Max post-apocalyptic world we’ll probably all be too busy defending our desert fortresses against roving bands of toughs to worry much about research. Still, the point is an interesting one. The pre-microfilm research library was impervious to this sort of disaster. Books printed on non-acidic paper last a long time, and that fact has been proven with time. They don’t even need the exquisite care they sometimes get now. When weeding the philosophy collection in the open stacks, I several times came across sound copies of two and even three hundred year old books just sitting there.

While I’m a big supporter of digitization projects and like the ease of use and power of search that digital texts give us, I still worry about the future. Sometimes those of us who like printed books and are skeptical of some technological claims for future information bliss are accused of being too traditional, too rooted in the past. We must look to the future. See what the exciting tools are doing for us! I can see what the exciting tools are doing for us, and in many cases I heartily approve. However, it seems to me that some techno-thrill is centered merely on the present, not on the future. Traditional research libraries have always shown a concern for the future. The collections we have now that allow historical research are there because someone in the past collected them for future use. Darnton’s example of the Folger collection is an excellent example of this.

I found his discussion of the multiple Folios had some personal relevance because of a discussion I once had with someone from Project Gutenberg. I was working in a used bookstore at the time and during a slow period we were arguing about the future of books. He was convinced that the future of books was electronic, while I was making the self-serving case that print books would be around for a long time to come. Though he was in fact haunting a used bookstore, he said he could read any book he wanted on his Newton (this will date the conversation somewhat). Anyway, the discussion got on to scholarly editions of Shakespeare, a topic I have a bit of knowledge about. He informed me that scholarly editions were irrelevant, and that any old text could be put online and everyone would be happy with it. In other words, he was assuming that the works of Shakespeare were stable texts, that there’s just, for example, an unproblematic text of King Lear. For the sake of argument, I’d be willing to admit that the general reader of Shakespeare probably doesn’t care about the details, but that unconcern is built on the foundation of texts created by scholars working with multiple texts of Shakespeare to try to create a best text for the general reader. It’s just not true that there is a single, stable Shakespeare just as it isn’t true there’s a single stable text of the Bible, to name another book that the general reader often assumes is unproblematic. Editions matter to the scholar, and they should matter to everyone. Do all digitization projects consider this?

A concern for the future is a concern that what is being collected will be available for future use. Unfortunately, in many respects libraries are thinking less of the future and more of the present. Consider the example of scholarly journals. Until relatively recently, journals were purchased and that was that. The publisher could fold. The journal could dissolve. It didn’t matter. The journal issues that had been purchased were still there in perpetuity. Now, however, libraries routinely aren’t purchasing journals, they’re purchasing access to journals, which is very different. Though all would be lost if we lost electricity, less dire circumstances could still lead to the loss of said access. If libraries stop subscribing, sometimes they might lose access to back issues that they had once been able to get. The stability of online collections differs, of course. JSTOR seems to me about as stable as can be, though I don’t think research libraries should discard all their old copies of JSTOR journals. A research library would be quite foolish to start canceling subscriptions to necessary journals because they’re now in ProQuest, though, as good as ProQuest is at providing a lot of content.

All is subject to uncertainty, and no individual library of the past could be sure that their collections wouldn’t be destroyed by fire or natural disaster (though rarely has this occurred on a grand scale). Had that happened, though, the results would be disastrous for the individual institution and its scholars, but less so for everyone else unless the collection was very unique, because there are so many research libraries. Could we be so sanguine about the future? If publishers of the future started collapsing in some economic meltdown and their online offerings disappeared, would we still have what we had at one time purchased, or would then be reliant once more upon the pre-electronic collections?

I’m not trying to paint some gloomy picture of the future of research libraries or attempting to manufacture a crisis, because I don’t feel gloomy about that future and I don’t think a crisis exists. I don’t think libraries are dying. But I find it odd that most of the time I see projections and prophesies about the future of libraries, they all concern the way some technological contrivance is going to affect the way we deliver content and services, but rarely on what that content will actually be. We’re told, for example, that mobile devices are ever more common and that we will have to adapt to them. That’s fine for some things. I have a mobile device of my own and use it all the time, but I think they’re only useful in their place. I don’t think people will be reading scholarly monographs on their smartphone. With DRM and copyright being what it is, I can’t even see much of a future for reading scholarly monographs from libraries on dedicated ebook readers, which is too bad because that’s a future I’d like to see. However, a concern for the future is a concern for preserving the past. The future of a research collection is its past, in what it has preserved and made available. If we abandon the known, stable good of print, can we be sure that what we collect now will still be available 100 years from now?

I don’t know the answer to that question, and I’m not especially alarmed, but it’s a question well worth addressing. If the collections of the future are just the things we managed to digitize, then they might be relatively more impoverished than our print collections are compared to all that has been printed. If the digital versions don’t survive, we will have lost a lot. Right now we can’t address the problem because we are too concerned with the flux of the present to think much of the future and because there’s no way we can answer the problem of longevity and preservation without a lot of time passing by to prove the point one way or another. We take our multiple leaps of faith and hope for the best, because that’s the best we can do right now. Regardless, we must always be concerned not just with present flux, but with future stability. The research library always shows concern for the past and hope for the future.

Some librarians are criticized for resisting “change.” I put the term in quotes because it’s used so often in the library literature but is an almost contentless word. Change has no concrete meaning; everything depends on the specific change. Is it a change for the better or worse? Can we tell? What are the reasons for change? Are they good ones? A concern for “change” is usually poised as a concern for the future, but there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on what that future might be. This makes perfect sense, and I’d be very skeptical indeed of librarians who claimed with certainty to know exactly what libraries and library users would be like in twenty years. What bothers me about so much change rhetoric is its reactive nature, though. Instead, I prefer those librarians who change because they want to create a certain type of future, not because they think if a contemporary fad isn’t exploited that libraries will become irrelevant. For research libraries, that future seems clear. We want to create a future where the human record of the past will be widely and indefinitely accessible. The future of research is in the past and its preservation (and by past, I include the very recent past as well, so in a sense almost anything is the past, including those statistics from last year you’re using to make arguments about the present). How we go about preserving this past will determine the possibilities of future research, and for now the best bet might be to take the piecemeal approach suggested by Darnton. Digitize, but don’t forget to buy the books. Print isn’t dead, and it lives a long time. Insisting on buying print books isn’t a reactionary resistance to change, but instead a cautious consideration of future needs in a time of uncertainty.

4 thoughts on “The Future in the Past

  1. I don’t recall the post here, but your post reminded me of an article by Thomas Hecker called The Post-Petroleum Future of Academic Libraries which touched on a) the loss of electricity and its effects, and, basically, what role the traditional (e.g., book) library will have in saving the world. I wrote about it in my blog, because it struck me as an interesting (if maybe a bit extreme) take on library doom.

  2. Hey, that could be it. I’ll look it up. It was one of those things I just remembered in skimming blogs and couldn’t find (quickly, at least) the original post. I remembered thinking the same thing. A bit extreme, but interesting. Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Wayne,
    It probably wasn’t my blog (unless you ended up at a blog called “The Loud Handle” somehow, which was my blog before I created one dedicated to library stuff), but now that I think about it, I may have stumbled across that article from the post you were referencing too.
    But, you’re welcome!

  4. Chris, you forced me to stop being lazy and go back and find where I saw it, and it was in the Gypsy Librarian, which has great analyses of library articles. So I referenced you both!
    On the other hand, I would never have remembered the title without your help.

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