Thursday, February 21, 2008

Information Past, Present, and Future; or, Don't Garden Your Library to Death

I just finished reading The future of the past by Alexander Stille (New York: Picador, 2002) which proved to not only be a fascinating look at the "past" and how human cultures define the concept, but also how massive technological and societal change shapes not only what we can communicate about the past but also how we can even conceive of it.

More to the point for this blog, Stille subtly explores the nature of libraries, archives, and other cultural storage and transmission traditions (oral tradition, anyone?) in post-modern, internet-era societies, the need of libraries to increasingly be entrepreneurial to stay afloat, the way in which the ability to record sound and images is eroding literacy world-wide, etc. The whole book is a wonderful and thought-provoking read, but several chapters are particularly relevant for contemporary librarians:

  • Chapter Seven: War of Words: Oral poetry, writing, and tape cassettes in Somalia
  • Chapter Nine: The return of the vanished library (all about the building of the Bibliotecha Alexandrina .. the reincarnation of the old Library of Alexandria)
  • Chapter Ten: the Vatican Library Mystery
  • Chapter Eleven: Are we losing our memory? or The Museum of obsolete technology
  • Conclusion: Writing and the creation of the past

I would definitely recommend this book to thoughtful people everywhere, especially anyone interested in the cultural construction of reality (a shout out to all my fellow anthropologists and philosophers out there), the power dynamics of access to information, the way in which our society destroys the underpinnings of cultures at the very moment that it tries to document those cultures.

OK, you might say, that's all very well and good. But how does it affect me as a librarian/archivist/information professional? Well, first, I would say, read the book, THEN we will talk.

But, if you are not inclined to read the book, let me indulge in a bit of personal narrative by way of explanation: as a freshly-minted Masters of Arts in Anthropology, I found myself working as the Reference Specialist in the Special Collections Department at Stanford University. This was at the moment when Stanford was beginning a major campaign to build its rare and unique collections but was still perceived as having a slightly quaint, nice, "regional" special collections repository.

A young academic, herself a freshly-minted Ph.D. in History, came in to do research on the African American experience in the San Francisco Bay Area region. Lo and behold, I discovered that we had next to nothing in the department's holding to support her research. And then it struck me: what is preserved to document a topics shapes what can be asked about the topic and what can be answered about the topic. To put it in very real human terms, since we had nothing to document the African American experience, the African American voice was essentially silenced in that archive at that time. The collection had lots of material documenting the history of rich, dead, white guys but nothing - or next to nothing - documenting working class folk, Black folk, Hispanic folk, etc.

(Important disclaimer: Stanford's major campaign to build collections mentioned above was particularly focused on documenting many formerly neglected social, cultural, and political groups that make up the tapestry of U.S. society. Its holdings now include some of the richest sets of collections documenting the Hispanic experience in the United States and extensive collections documenting African American, Jewish, and Asian communities throughout the U.S. If the same researcher had come to the desk a mere five years later, her experience would have been completely different.)

I learned an important lesson that day: What we select, collect, and preserve fundamentally shapes what we can know about ourselves as a people, as a society, and as a civilization. As librarians and archivists, we know that we have to continuously evaluate our collections to keep them relevant and like a good gardener, weed out the damaged branches, the unhealthy shoots, etc. That being said, we need to make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bath-water. We also need to be sure not to throw our cultural heritage out the door with the outdated copies of ready reference materials. If we cut too deeply in our holdings in order to make them more "relevant", we risk cutting ourselves off from our past. The moral of the story: don't prune your library to the point where you kill it.

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