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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 19, 2007

national-library-sarajevo.jpg
The Moorish-Revival style facade of the fire-gutted former National and University Library building, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

In a June 1 commentary, Doc Searls objected to the high annual user-fees ($500 and up) that American universities such as Stanford and Harvard charge outsiders to use their libraries. Doc cautioned: “The (inter)net is a bigger library than all … university libraries put together, and it’s not exclusive. This is a fact of life (or death) for libraries and those of us who continue to care deeply about them.”

The Poorly-Stocked Web

My own take is that while the web might theoretically have the potential of providing more shelf space than all libraries combined, in reality it is quite far from being as well stocked. Indeed, only a small portion of the world’s knowledge is available online. The danger is that as people come to believe that the web is the be-all and end-all source of information, the less they will consult or be willing to pay for the off-line materials that continue to comprise the bulk of the world’s knowledge, intellectual achievement, and cultural heritage. The outcome: the active base of knowledge used by students, experts, and ordinary people will shrink as a limited volume of information, mostly culled from older secondary sources, is recycled and recombined over and again online, leading to an intellectual dark-age of sorts. In this scenario, Wikipedia entries will continue to grow uncontrolled and unverified while specialized books, scholarly journals and the world’s treasure troves of still-barely-explored primary sources will gather dust. Present-day librarians, experts in the mining of information and the guidance of researchers, will disappear. Scholarly discourse will slow to a crawl while the rest of us leave our misconceptions unquestioned and the gaps in our knowledge unfilled.

The challenge is either – or both – to get more books, periodicals, and original source materials online or to prompt people to return to libraries while at the same time ensuring that libraries remain (or become) accessible. Both tasks are dauntingly expensive and, in the end, must be paid for, whether through taxes, grants, memberships, donations, or market-level or publicly-subsidized fees. What the exact cost models could or will be is part of a larger conversation on the infrastructure of the internet that Doc and I have kicked-off privately and will at some point bring online. It is also part of ongoing conversations on future models for the publishing industry and intellectual property laws.

Digitization of the contents of libraries, by the way, is a highly complex affair, especially when dealing with older books and with original, fragile archival materials. The goal is to reproduce such materials in a non-destructive manner, at a sufficiently high quality, and in a manner that is searchable. Indeed, the ability to search within and across documents is one of the ultimate benefits of digitalization and one of main promises of interconnected on-line libraries.

A War Against Archives

Just about the time when Doc was preparing his June 1 posting I was standing in front of the former National and University Library in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The building – constructed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century soon after the transfer of control of Bosnia from the Ottoman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire– originally served as Sarajevo’s town hall. The edifice is an archetypical example of so-called Moorish Revival architecture, a style that may have been propogated as a non-Ottoman but still (stereotypically-) oriental “national” style for the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s newly-annexed Muslim-populated Balkan territories. (More on Moorish Revival architecture and contrived national identities and national styles on my alter-ego weblog Bubkes.Org later this summer).

In August of 1992, during the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo, the National Library building was set ablaze. This resulted in the loss of more than two million books, periodicals, and archival documents. The attempted destruction of the library was part of a concerted attempt to wipe out the historical memory and cultural heritage of Muslim Bosnia, a correlate of the attempt to delegitimize the presence of, and ultimately physically eliminate, its inhabitants. Fortunately, many of the library’s rare manuscripts had been smuggled out of the library building and hidden elsewhere in Sarajevo in anticipation of the attack.

The internet has a long way to go as a home for irreplaceable historical archives and documents. Such primary sources form the basis for original research and for refreshing our understanding in many fields. The rarity and fragility of archival documents makes them worthy of digitization and web-based archiving and distribution. At the moment, archival materials are under-represented among the corpus of information in cyberspace. This causes them to slip out the ken of popular recognition as well as beyond the reach of specialists without the resources to travel to and work where they are stored. In the case of Sarajevo, a valuable part of the cultural heritage of the Balkans might have been saved in virtual form had the potentials of digitation and the web been available and utilized at the time. More recently, the Bush administration’s ill-considered war and occupation in Iraq was based on pathetically inadequate research and a total misunderstanding of the country, its history, and the peoples that comprise it. Indeed, much of the history of Iraq and its antecedents – as of much of the Mid-East, North Africa, and the Balkans – stills lays buried amongst the millions of pre-1923 Ottoman documents stored in the Turkish national archives in Istanbul and Ankara. This is all the more reason to ensure that, whatever the cost model, more of the world’s printed and written heritage is brought online and that until then we continue to turn to libraries and keep in mind that there are “far more things in heaven and earth” than are now contained on the internet.

(Digital Photo © Stephen Lewis, 2007)

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8 Responses to “Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo”

  1. Interesting theme, Steve. If you’re an SF reader, you might take a look at Alastair Reynolds’ excellent _Century Rain_. He posits a large-scale nanotech disaster that renders the Earth uninhabitable, along with a willful rush to digitize valuable content and destroy the originals led by (wait for it)… libraries themselves! In a good-hearted but misguided effort to save on space and overhead, libraries are even now scanning works and then discarding the originals. In Reynolds’ book, that leads to exactly the circumstances you touch on above.

  2. […] This is a post I made at Stephen Lewis’ blog partly disagreeing with his post about Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo. Found from Doc Searls’ blog posted as Findings. I haven’t included many of the […]

  3. […] And that isn’t taking into consideration the Library of Congress or University Libraries. Steve Lewis, a college buddy who remains far more scholarly than I, writes, …while the web might […]

  4. […] Stephen Lewis (via Dave) has a good and troubling post about the limits of the Web as a repository of knowledge. […]

  5. […] Read the rest of the post here. […]

  6. […] —HakPakSak […]

  7. […] by Stephen Lewis on August 26th, 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 can ever surpass the […]

  8. […] que se lhe pareça (temos muito pouco em papel e em geral). Um bom começo poderá ser o artigo «Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo», um apanhado limpo e drástico da má qualidade arquivística da Internet no presente, lembrando […]

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