Libraries vs. the Internet: Researching the Peloponnesian War, the British Library’s “Turning the Pages” Project, and a Brilliantly Aesthetic Weblog
Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 26, 2007
This past June, I posted an entry (Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo) weighing in against the misconception that the Internet is equal to or will render obsolete the world’s great libraries. Soon after, I came across this recent paper: The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries (2007) by Thomas Mann, Ph.D (author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2005).
Mann’s paper — prepared for AFSCME 2910, the Library of Congress Professional Guild — is a compelling 40-page examination of the roles of libraries, librarians, and cataloging, and of the place and present limits of the Internet. Beginning with the device of a student’s attempt to research the Peloponnesian War, Mann reflects on the nature of research, knowledge, and scholarly discourse vs. “quick fix” searches for isolated facts. His consideration of the visceral and associative nature of delving into open stack collections inspires one to set out in search of the nearest library. Vis-a-vis the Internet, one of Mann’s main points of concern is:
“The inadequacy of the open Internet alone for scholarly research – its inability to provide overviews of “the whole elephant”—i.e., not showing all relevant parts, not distinguishing important from tangential, not showing interconnections or relationships, not adequately allowing recognition of what cannot be specified.”
In all, Mann’s paper is an enticing challenge to all of us to return to libraries, to expand our knowledge, and to taste and enter the worlds of research, scholarship and discourse, whether as participants or occasional observers. Internet partisans sometimes prefer aphorisms and “getting it” to longer, well-reasoned arguments but anyone interested in seeing the internet fulfill its potential in the hosting, association, and democratization of knowledge would do well to at least skim the paper.
Turning the Pages
One of the best projects I have encountered on the Web to digitize, examine, and make accessible treasured books and manuscripts is the British Library’s Turning the Pages site. Turning the Pages includes magnificently reproduced rare books — their pages made “turnable” via Shockwave — with English-language transcriptions of their texts and, in some cases audio files of readings of the texts in their original languages. Still, the project presents the texts in isolation and without links or references to facilitate research or place them within the contexts of collections, background material, relevant scholarship, etc. — one of the pitfalls that Mann refers to in his monograph.
A Brilliantly Aesthetic Weblog
I first found Mann’s paper on Libraries and the Internet on wood s lot, a prodigious weblog of impeccably selected — and equally impeccably associated — photographs, paintings, and literary quotes. I truly recommend it … and thank its author for his occasional links to Hak Pak Sak!