[Paleopsych] The Times: Paradise is paper, vellum and dust by Ben Macintyre

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Paradise is paper, vellum and dust by Ben Macintyre
December 18, 2004

    Libraries will survive the digital revolution because they are places
    of sensuality and power

    I HAVE a halcyon library memory. I am sitting under a cherry tree in
    the tiny central courtyard of the Cambridge University Library, a book
    in one hand and an almond slice in the other. On the grass beside me
    is an incredibly pretty girl. We are surrounded by eight million
    books. Behind the walls on every side of the courtyard, the books
    stretch away in compact ranks hundred of yards deep, the shelves
    extending at the rate of two miles a year. There are books beneath us
    in the subterranean stacks, and they reach into the sky; we are
    entombed in words, an unimaginable volume of collected knowledge in
    cold storage, quiet and vast and waiting.

    Perhaps that was the moment I fell in love with libraries. Or perhaps
    it was earlier, growing up in Scotland, when the mobile library would
    lurch up the road with stocks of Enid Blyton and bodice-rippers on the
    top shelf with saucy covers, to be giggled over when the
    driver-librarian was having his cup of tea.

    Or perhaps the moment came earlier yet, when my father took me into
    the bowels of the Bodleian in Oxford and I inhaled, for the first
    time, that intoxicating mixture of vellum, paper and dust.

    I have spent a substantial portion of my life since in libraries, and
    I still enter them with a mixture of excitement and awe. I am not
    alone in this. Veneration for libraries is as old as writing itself,
    for a library is more to our culture than a collection of books: it is
    a temple, a symbol of power, the hushed core of civilisation, the
    citadel of memory, with its own mystique, social and sensual as well
    as intellectual. Even people who never enter libraries instinctively
    understand their symbolic power.

    But now a revolution, widely compared to the invention of printing
    itself, is taking place among the stacks, and the library will never
    be the same again. This week Google announced plans to digitise
    fifteen million books from five great libraries, including the
    Bodleian. Google's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have declared
    their intention to collect all information online, an ambition that
    puts them up there with the Ptolomies, founders of the great library
    at Alexandria. What was once megalomaniac bibliomania is now a
    technological certainty.

    Some fear that this total library, vast and invisible, could finally
    destroy traditional libraries, which will become mere warehouses for
    the physical objects, empty of people and life. The advantages for
    researchers of a single scholarly online catalogue are incalculable,
    but will we bother to browse the shelves when we can merely summon up
    any book in the world with the push of a button? Are the days of the
    library as a social organism over?

    Almost certainly not, for reasons practical, psychological and,
    ultimately, spiritual. Locating a book online is one thing, reading it
    is quite another, for there is no aesthetic substitute for the
    physical object; the computer revolution rolls on inexorably, but the
    world is reading more paper books than ever. Indeed, so far from
    destroying libraries, the internet has protected the written word as
    never before, and rendered knowledge genuinely democratic. Fanatics
    always attack the libraries first, dictators seek to control the
    literature, elites hoard the knowledge that is power. Shi Huangdi, the
    Chinese emperor of the 3rd century BC, ordered that all literature,
    history and philosophy written before the founding of his dynasty
    should be destroyed. More books were burnt in the 20th century than
    any other -- in Nazi Germany, Bosnia and Afghanistan. With the online
    library, the books are finally safe, and the biblioclasts have been
    beaten, for ever.

    But the traditional library will also survive, because a library is
    central to our understanding of what it is to be human. Ever since the
    first clay tablets were collected in Mesopotamia, Man has wanted not
    merely to obtain and master knowledge, but to preserve it, to hold it
    in his hand.

    "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,"
    wrote Jorge Luis Borges, poet, writer and librarian, who understood
    better than most the essential physicality of books. Borges was
    appointed director of Argentina's National Library in the year that he
    went blind:

      No one should read self-pity or reproach
      Into this statement of the majesty of God, who with such splendid
      Granted me books and blindness in one touch

    Libraries are not places of dry scholarship but living sensuality. In
    Love Story Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal get together with the library as
    backdrop; in Dr Zhivago, Uri and Lara find one another in a library. I
    have a friend, now a well-known journalist, who became overcome by
    lust in the British Library and was discovered by a librarian making
    love behind the stacks in the empty quarter of Humanities with a woman
    he had met in the tearoom. The librarian was apparently most
    understanding, and said it happened quite a lot.

    Libraries are not just for reading in, but for sociable thinking,
    exploring, exchanging ideas and falling in love. They were never
    silent. Technology will not change that, for even in the starchiest
    heyday of Victorian self-improvement, libraries were intended to be
    meeting places of the mind, recreational as well as educational. The
    Openshaw branch of the Manchester public library was built complete
    with a billiard room.

    Just as bookshops have become trendy, offering brain food and
    cappuccinos, so libraries, under financial and cultural pressure, will
    have to evolve by more actively welcoming people in to wander and
    explore. Finding a book online should be the beginning, not the end,
    of the process of discovery, a peeling back of the first layer: the
    word library, after all, comes from liber, the inner bark of a tree.

    Bookish types have always feared change and technology, but the book,
    and the library, have adapted and endured, retaining the essential
    magic of these places. Even Hollywood understood. In Desk Set (1957)
    Katharine Hepburn plays a librarian-researcher whose job is threatened
    by a computer expert (Spencer Tracy) introducing new technology. In
    the end, the computer turns out to be an asset, not a danger, Tracy
    and Hepburn end up smooching, and everyone lives (and reads) happily
    ever after.

    The marriage of Google and the Bodleian is, truly, a Tracy and Hepburn

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