Sunday, July 15, 2007

Evolving Libraries

Traditionally, bookworms have been associated with libraries, although my personal preference are bookstores (but then again, I have disposable income and came from a well-off family, so that has a bearing too). Modern libraries, however, are changing, especially with the dawn of the Internet. And I think the recent change is a big, evolutionary step in the institution. Computerizing the library's index and card catalog system is one thing. Offering new services such as Internet browsing and storage of various media (i.e. videos, audio books, CD archives, etc.) is in many ways revolutionary.

I'm neither a historian nor a librarian however. Right now, aside from what I learned in school, I'll draw some of my ideas from these two wonderful online resources: History Magazine and its article on libraries, and The History of Printing (plus tidbits from Wikipedia here and there). I include the latter because I don't think one can talk about libraries without discussing the material they're actually housing. And as much as I'm all for the modern revolution of libraries, when we speak of libraries, we usually associate them with books.

What one has to understand that until the refined process of Movable Type was introduced, mass producing any publication was extremely difficult. How difficult? Well, one had to manually write or copy one text to another. And bear in mind, this is early on in history, when literacy wasn't high and scribing was an actual profession (meaning it was limited). Scribes were easily human photocopying machines, except they had human limits (if you've played the game/exercise "pass the message" where one person passes a specific message to the next person and so on and so forth, you'll understand how inaccuracies can pop up). What that means was that books were rare, or at the very least, expensive to produce.

Wikipedia states that one of the first uncovered libraries were merely archives, usually inventories and commercial transactions. However, libraries would later pop up, although they are not the libraries we might know now. I mean books (and during this era, they were really scrolls) were scarce commodities and the elite (no matter what era we're talking about) has always prided themselves in resources that were not always readily available, whether it was jewelry, education, wealth, political influence, and in this case, books. It's not hard to imagine that many of the elite had personal libraries. The difference, however, is that these libraries were private instead of public. And whether we're talking about Western or Eastern culture, I think this holds true. I mean to truly appreciate books, one had to be literate, and literacy early in our history was never as high as it is today.

The most popular library in history was probably The Library of Alexandria which was reputed to be the largest library in the world. It is an important part of history as this was a point in time when knowledge was prized and there was an expedition to gather as much books as possible (interestingly enough, because of the nature of human scribing, the older the scroll, the more "accurate" it was--a distinct difference from today's publication paradigm wherein the more recent work is the most "updated"). The Library of Alexandria was an exemplar as a place of learning not just because it collected books, but that the government of that time recognized its importance and funds from the royal treasury was used to pay for the upkeep of such a huge endeavor.

The Roman library is an interesting footnote in history. Juluis Caesar wanted to establish a huge public library but was unable to do so. Asinius Pollio however was able to make that original vision come true. There are three things which I find interesting about the Roman library:

  1. It was easily the most public of all libraries, not just because of its accessibility, but because the books were placed along the walls, easily the precursor to today's practice of browsing books through the shelves (instead of telling the librarian you want a specific book and they'd fetch it).
  2. The Roman library was a bilingual library, divided into two sections, one for Greek and one for Latin.
  3. Serving as director of the library was prestigious, to the point that it was a stepping stone to politics. (Today, as much as I love librarians, they're not valued as highly by society.)

The library, however, was nonetheless a place the elite visited (and I don't see how that has changed to the present era). That didn't mean however that the masses didn't read books. Rather, their preferred venue was some place else: the imperial baths. Libraries were installed in the baths so in addition to chatting with friends, one could read a book in the baths (although how they prevented them from getting wet, I don't know but I must point out that scrolls of this period were probably sturdier than books of the present day). (Perhaps this was the precursor of bathroom reading?)

When the Roman Empire fell, the concept of the library was preserved in monasteries. The best way to propagate religion is to preserve it in written material and that's exactly what monks did. Obviously, it was just religious texts that got preserved in this manner but one of the practices we inherited from this period was the idea of inter-library loaning: monasteries would trade manuscripts and copy them. Thus were various religion texts circulated and preserved.

Shortly after that period, universities would come into play in Europe (especially with the rice of the merchant class) and people became interested in learning again. Literacy was no longer the sole domain of the church as non-religious texts were being produced and the clergy were no longer the only teachers one could learn from. The History of Printing has an interesting paragraph:

Two new kinds of institutions grew up around the universities to provide for that demand: stationers and book copiers. These folks provided paper and libraries of text books that had been carefully studied and compared to other books for accuracy. They made these books available for copying by students. When a student needed a text for a class, he would go down to the stationers and copy them - by hand. Or he could pay a book copier to copy the book for him.

This interest eventually gave birth to Movable Type, the precursor to today's modern printing press. Thus the means to accurate mass produce a book was born, although it's worth noting that the Bible and various religious tracts were still one of the first documents that would be effectively be mass produced using this system. (So as much as there are atheist and agnostic bibliophiles out there, they must give credit where it's due--libraries and printing wouldn't have come about as quickly if it weren't for Christianity in particular.)

At this point, it's easy to imagine how libraries would evolve, thanks to books being more readily available. In 1731, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow Junto members would establish the Library Company of Philadelphia, a library where members paid dues (to pay for new acquisition of books) and book borrowing was "free". This development was important because it would be the model for today's modern libraries and how its upkeep was maintained (aside from government subsidization, if any).

It's not mentioned in any of my sources, but I think another important part in the development of libraries was the inclusion of periodicals and newspapers--and the archiving of them. I mean when we watch movies, we see protagonists doing their research in the library, looking through old news via microfilm or microfiche. It's interesting how libraries started this practice, as they not only made the movement towards preserving books and manuscripts, but preserving history as well. I think this was the start of the trend wherein libraries would become repositories of information, gathering not just documents but other forms of media such as videos, archives in digital format, etc.

What I find interesting about today's modern library, especially with all the computers and Internet within its walls, is how it's going back to its roots. Some traditionalists might have qualms with computers in libraries, but would they have problems with computers in museums? For me museums have filled a similar role as libraries, except they deal more with the senses (visual, aural, olfactory, touch, etc.) rather than mere text. The first section of The Temple of Alexandria, the Temple of the Muses or the Museion, is where we derive the word museum. And in certain ways, I think that's where libraries are heading.

Don't get me wrong, large skeletons of creatures of the Phanerozoic era and art work and 3D models of the Solar System will still have a place in what we know as museums, but it's not too far off to imagine that libraries will evolve in that direction as well. Libraries aren't just repositories of books, they're shifting towards becoming repositories of knowledge, period. And there's various forms in which people can be educated, whether it's a text book or a documentary video or an online archive. Funding is a perfectly valid question whether this is all possible, but the Internet has always made it possible for information to flow more freely.

Still, as accessible and useful libraries are in today's modern world, I think libraries will follow the path of its predecessors: limited to the hands of the elite (and in this case, the educated elite). I mean as much as we have public libraries, how many people take advantage of them? I think a point of even bigger concern is how outside of school and the university, people in general take little interest in libraries, and how they develop.

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