The Library in the New Age

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
The Library in the New Age


Catchfire Catchfire's picture

[url=]Robert Darnton[/url]


Each change in the technology has transformed the information landscape, and the speed-up has continued at such a rate as to seem both unstoppable and incomprehensible. In the long view—what French historians call la longue durйe—the general picture looks quite clear—or, rather, dizzying. But by aligning the facts in this manner, I have made them lead to an excessively dramatic conclusion. Historians, American as well as French, often play such tricks. By rearranging the evidence, it is possible to arrive at a different picture, one that emphasizes continuity instead of change. The continuity I have in mind has to do with the nature of information itself or, to put it differently, the inherent instability of texts. In place of the long-term view of technological transformations, which underlies the common notion that we have just entered a new era, the information age, I want to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable.

George Victor

This question is certainly a challenging one for librarians working on the public purse.

The reference sections of libraries are being reduced to computer terminals because it's obvious for space and financial reasons (as well as ease of study by the computer literate) that that's the way to go. Accommodating the "modern or postmodern student", as the author puts it. Although this "pre-modern" person still finds stickums a great aid to revisit pertinent points.

Carnegie certainly promoted Corinthian columns, and made libraries possible in a hundred towns and villages across this province )Ont) where otherwise the money would never have been found to build one. Some began incorporating council meeting rooms and municipal offices into their library designs until the Carnegie trust grew wise to the dodge.

But, of course, settlement here coincided with the emergence of industrialization, so it was the very functional Mechanics Institutes that first brought libraries and reading rooms to the great unread.

But my concern for libraries and schools is the increasing gap in availability of knowledge along social class lines, with the IT world not really available to the marginalized, as the writer notes. With no direction, it's games over knowledge every time.

So, I push for well-stocked shelves AS WELL as up-to-date IT systems - even while continuing to be impressed by the world of google and the facility with which fellow babblers produce evidence for their arguments.

I'm just not sure what the kids are going to do with it if it's presented to them without context in a postmodern world that is suspicious of all theory and ideology and ideas from history.



I'm just not sure what the kids are going to do with it if it's presented to them without context in a postmodern world that is suspicious of all theory and ideology and ideas from history.

Big surprise: marry the phenomena to googling to schooling already weak in teaching kids to look, inquire and think, and what do you get?

They google topics. Doesn't matter how narrowly you define what they are to look for, they'll get anywehre from dozens to tens of thosands of hits. They print off one of them. Done. And cluless.

But I think that is more a comment on eductaion than it is on the role of IT in libraries. And the dynamic is the same whether or not scholls have libraries at all.

[b]ETA:[/b] Serious thread drift here. But I find it remarkable how kids can come from countries where it is unabashed learning by rote- none of the lip service we pay to teaching kids to think. And those international students are at least as good at reading something and comprehending [i]where it fits.[/i]

[ 31 May 2008: Message edited by: KenS ]

George Victor

Re ETA interjection:
Can you explain that phenom of newcomers' appreciation for the nuances of a new language?

Or have I misread your meaning?


No. On average the language facility is a challenge.

But despite that, and despite many of them, particularly Asisn students coming out of what we see as a rote lerning system that doesn't teach people to think, they have at least a grasp as Canadians where something they read fits into the bigger picture.

And the relevance is that where things fit into the bigger picture was never a srtong point in our educational system. Googling has thrown gas on the fire. Or it looks like it is doing that- while the end result may be no worse than what we had.


Ken, I tried to sort out your stereotypes one by one (youth, Asians...), but I got lost. I think this generation, and education today, are far smarter, far wiser, far more discriminating, far more tolerant and accepting, and far more universalist in their outlook than you (and I) ever were. And computers, google and all the rest will make it more so.



I think this generation, and education today, are far smarter, far wiser, far more discriminating, far more tolerant and accepting, and far more universalist in their outlook than you (and I) ever were.

I tend to agree with that unionist. Certainly most of it and the depth of the generational difference. And in part, thats why I qualified that what I say as the generally terrible use of googling- and the existing weaknesses it plays into- may not lead to the results I see playing out.

And part of that is because I know I don't have a grasp on the 'big picture' of how this generation is learning. To a very great degree we learned in spite of the schools we went to [and in my case personally- that was true big time]. So why shouldn't the same thing be happening with kids now. And it would be no surprise if HOW was largely invisible to me beyond some disjointed impressions.

All that said, my views on how googling is used [pick that hit, print out, pass in] may be a reflection that I'm very close up to the age group that does that the most. Just as if you'll have a REAL education in what Facebook/MSN Messenger/MySpace/LiveJournal cultural mixing is all about if you are watching real time over the shoulder of teeneagers- the younger the better. They make the university student age group look like archaic dinosaurs.

Which leaves us....

[ 31 May 2008: Message edited by: KenS ]

George Victor

Yep, "this generation" will be way out ahead ...except for those disadvantaged, marginalized, not online, not inclined, turned off... etc.

As a generalization, "this generation" is about as big as they come. Not sure of what motivates (activates) any number, and if the turnout of the twenty-somethings at the polls is any indication, just what can be expected?
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Or is a younger "this generation" meant?


By "this generation", I actually meant "this generation" - age 0-25.

I really question whether the poorest and most marginalized have historically had better access to libraries than they do now to the internet. I'd like to see some proof of that.

I also do not believe that education is the key to ending poverty and marginalization. I think that's "American dream" bullshit, frankly, and I'm sure you're not espousing that.

Finally, as for 20-somethings not stampeding to the polls, why should they? To vote for whom? To change what? As I said, I think they are far wiser than we were. Watch for change to come from extra-parliamentary arenas.

ETA: By the way, "this generation" is [url=]a... God[/url] in large numbers. If that's because they have less access to the religious books in the neighbourhood library, then God bless them is all I can say.

[ 31 May 2008: Message edited by: unionist ]

George Victor

As you know, the "great middle" is disappearing, and we are looking at far greater inequalities across North America. I'm not into "American dream bullshit" when I say we are very much a meritocracy as far as the job market goes, and that is the great divider as far as life chances go.

Not sure how the lead article to this thread has brought us to this low. Have you read the article? Do you agree with his position? Or is this somehow all just elite "bullshit" under discussion?



Originally posted by George Victor:
[b] Have you read the article?[/b]

Yes - have you? I had my doubts when you said this, which is what I was responding to primarily (not to his article):


[George Victor:] But my concern for libraries and schools is the increasing gap in availability of knowledge along social class lines, with the IT world not really available to the marginalized, as the writer notes. With no direction, it's games over knowledge every time.

You see, I took his article as being primarily about [b]research libraries in academe[/b] - not the corner type. His conclusion:


Meanwhile, I say: shore up the library. Stock it with printed matter. Reinforce its reading rooms. But don't think of it as a warehouse or a museum. While dispensing books, most research libraries operate as nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses. They acquire data sets, maintain digital re-positories, provide access to e-journals, and orchestrate information systems that reach deep into laboratories as well as studies. Many of them are sharing their intellectual wealth with the rest of the world by permitting Google to digitize their printed collections. Therefore, I also say: long live Google, but don't count on it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.

So then - why are you talking about the "marginalized" (which he doesn't particularly deal with in his article at all)? Which "marginalized" people do you know who make it into university?

I thought his article had some tiny point about technologies of data-preservation - a point that has been made many times before. But whatever point he made, it wasn't that poor kids can get books but not the internet.


[b]Do you agree with his position? Or is this somehow all just elite "bullshit" under discussion?[/b]




I really question whether the poorest and most marginalized have historically had better access to libraries than they do now to the internet. I'd like to see some proof of that.

From what I see, schoolage kids of ALL classes have if anything better access to the world through the internet.

And I live in a depressed area where the entire class range runs from marginalized underclass to working class with something approximating steady work.

There has never been access to libraries here. But my comparison is to the same kids in urban areas.


Yeah, just checked who the author is in the OP:


Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library at Harvard.

Guess he has a vested interest in not being replaced by a one-terabyte external drive, a scanner, some OCR software and a good search engine, all available for a few hundred bucks. No wonder he gushes over the fragrance of inky paper...


I live in an area where you know the baiscs of life even about people you rarely talk to. And I cannot think of a single run down shackey home that has young people in it and no computer.

There would be some for sure. But ALL the kids I know well enough to say for sure, have at least one computer in the house.

And even if they didn't- even at our very poorly resourced schools the kids spend tons of time on-line- and I would say have AT LEAST an hour a day of that [in spurts] to roam where they please.

And the Net is the great equalizer for a social life. So much so that a kid like my daughter who has not a single even casual friend within bicycle range has the same social life as everybody else. Because even urban teens are in a wired social world.

George Victor

You seem to have mastered selective reading.
"He desn't particularly deal with (the question of marginalization) in his article at all."

I agree. He mentions it. Twice..."In 2006 Google...seemed to offer a way to make all book learning available to all people, or at least those privileged enough to have access to the World Wide Web"...and then, it will somehow all be okay "despite the digital divide that seperates the poor from the computerized."

I can find no mention of how it will turn out all right for the "poor".

The fellow is speaking of an elite use of the Web. And he studiously avoids throughout, coming to griops with the social meaning of the inequality of access. Of course he has to end on the note that books have to stay in the equation. So did I, above.

Now before applying more generalizations, use of the word bullshit, and evidence of problems with reading the text, what exactly is your point? Or are you just in the mood for rancorous and otherwise nasty exchanges?



Originally posted by George Victor:
[b]Now before applying more generalizations, use of the word bullshit, and evidence of problems with reading the text, what exactly is your point? Or are you just in the mood for rancorous and otherwise nasty exchanges?[/b]

I apologize if you took the word "bullshit" as applied to you - I specifically tried to say that it was not.

My point is that I disagree - almost entirely - with Mr. Darnton's thesis. Access to knowledge is being universalized, and he doesn't appear to enjoy that prospect - so he denies it. Read my previous post.

George Victor

Harvard has again found a means to stay above the fray I'm afraid. Managing to say little about the real (social) world. It's an art form perfected by those institutions dependent on hand me down wealth.

But then, it's publish or perish, eh?
Galbraith had the same problem there for many years.
[img]smile.gif" border="0[/img]

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Darnton is referring to the library as an archive of knowledge, not a dissemination tool. He is also probably the most famous social historian in the world. Any attempts at speculating as to his "vested interests" will fail miserably.

In these terms, what is most interesting in his argument is that he views digital archiving tools as complements, not replacements, to books. He does this by looking at the historical materialism of libraries and archiving and I have to say that I agree with him. He does not forward, as unionist seems to think, a luddite argument that says the Internet is wrong for academia and sill ruin the "feel" of books. On the contrary, he refutes claims that digital archiving is unstable, pointing out that information has [i]always[/i] been unstable and the Internet is simply the latest extension of this trend.

I found the article interesting because I tend to believe that literary forms like the novel will never survive the "information age." But from an historian's point of view, while the book as a contemporary form might be disappearing, as resource, it will continue to have value. This strikes me as a perfectly reasonable synthesis of luddite/humanist arguments and the technological utopian position.

I also do not see why the tactile and sensual pleasures of reading are dismissed. We do lots of nostalgic things in this life to get pleasure: uncork wines that would "taste better" if they had screw tops (and were in boxes instead of bottles); play vinyl records instead of mp3s; watch/read Shakespeare; etc. The pleasure we get from the physical presence of a book seems to me a perfectly reasonable one.

George Victor

The Harvard library and the any age:

from today's NYTimes

Published: June 3, 2008
For three years, a handful of Harvard University alumni have waged a quiet effort to persuade the university to expand its mission far beyond its Cambridge campus, the students it educates there and the multitude of research labs, libraries and other facilities available to them.

They call themselves Harvard Alumni for Social Action, or HASA, and their goal is to prod the university to use its vast wealth, including its $35 billion endowment, in unprecedented ways, like supporting struggling colleges in Africa.

“There are large amounts of money being given to Harvard and other wealthy universities every year by classes like ours, and they don’t really need it,” said Jennifer Freeman, part of the HASA outreach committee for the Class of 1983. “They should be thinking of new things they could do with it, which would re-energize alumni and be good for the university, too.”

Both Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, and her predecessor, Lawrence H. Summers, have been unwilling to even discuss the proposals. The development office, as fund-raising operations are known in the charitable world, politely refuses to share its list of alumni, frustrating HASA’s recruiting ability.

Tamara Rogers, vice president for university development at Harvard and herself a member of the Class of 1981, said university policy, in an effort to protect privacy, prohibited distribution of alumni lists. “It is simply not our mission to provide direct financial support to universities elsewhere in the world,” Ms. Rogers said. “It is part of the mission to build capacity in universities throughout the world through our research and education.”

Ms. Rogers said the university already touched Africa and the rest of the world in myriad ways. All told, a spokesman said, Harvard has 68 centers and programs with work related to Africa and offers 125 classes about the continent.

HASA reflects the growing debate over university endowments and whether their continued accumulation of assets — Harvard is expected to have $100 billion at the end of the next 10 years — serves a charitable purpose.

“This is a healthy discussion for universities and donors to have,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who has been urging wealthy universities to spend more of their endowments to combat rising tuition costs.

HASA was started by Paula Tavrow, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, after she started getting calls from Harvard in 2005 soliciting a gift in honor of her 25th reunion the next year.

Ms. Tavrow got a firsthand look at the plight of African universities when she worked at the University of Malawi in the early 1990s. At that time, a drought meant the university had no water. The library had no working photocopier, and a professor was lending students his own books because otherwise they could not do the required reading.

Ms. Tavrow began contacting classmates, and they began trying to persuade the class gift officers, the alumni designated as fund-raisers for each class, to embrace the notion of redirecting reunion contributions to Africa.

That idea was rejected by the gift officers and the university, as were other suggestions from the group that was gradually coalescing into HASA.

The university finally agreed to create a fund to underwrite fellowships for African graduate students seeking to study at the School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, but only after Marco Elser, a 1981 graduate, agreed to pledge $250,000 over three years to get it started.

“It was a proverbial hole in the water,” Mr. Elser said in a telephone interview from Rome, where he lives. “Harvard got the money and made no effort at all to promote the concept to other classes and begin educating them about how they could direct their reunion gifts. I was very, very disappointed, needless to say.”

Not entirely, though. His initial goal was to increase the number of alumni from the Class of 1981 contributing to the reunion gift, and in fact the class broke the record for 25th-reunion fund-raising and participation, attracting $41 million from 75.8 percent of the class, Ms. Rogers said. About $300,000 went to the fellowships.

HASA members say that result alone is a good reason for Harvard to embrace them.

“According to messages we got, HASA was a primary force in encouraging people who had never given to Harvard before and some who had never even bothered to come to a reunion before to do so,” said Claire Mays Poumadиre, a HASA organizer from the Class of 1981. “It created this incredible glue months before the reunion and gave class members a real sense of cohesion.”

The effort has attracted at least one of Harvard’s biggest donors, Sumner L. Feldberg, who made a fortune in retailing. He gave $1,000 to HASA after he was contacted by Ms. Poumadиre, the daughter of one of his old friends.

“This approach should be brought to the attention of all future major reunion classes,” Mr. Feldberg wrote then. “Selecting a worthwhile outside cause to aid would be electrifying for them as it has been for your class.”

Like Ms. Rogers, however, he noted that direct gifts to Harvard also ended up benefiting Africa.

It is unclear that the enthusiasm generated among the Class of 1981 will carry forward.

Interest jumped, HASA members say, after an opinion article that mentioned the group ran in The New York Times in May.

For now, though, HASA must be content with the scholarship fund, which holds $331,000, and a fund to support the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which is administered by the Human Rights Education Association. Gifts to that fund are not counted as gifts to Harvard.

[ 03 June 2008: Message edited by: George Victor ]



Originally posted by Catchfire:
[b]Darnton is referring to the library as an archive of knowledge, not a dissemination tool.[/b]

In that case, I retract everything I said. All my reflections were directed to George Victor and KenS, who were (as I was) quite clearly talking about dissemination of information. Seen as a technical piece about optimizing data storage, it holds no interest for me. Sorry if I misunderstood his objective.

George Victor

This old Luddite is overawed with the amount of information available out there in the aether, but I cannot fall asleep with tools of that mode of information open across my chest.

Also can't see how one completely "replaces" the other, for all the sensual reasons stated, but then I'm past the age when the prospect of learning is all so frightening, and I don't live in the conditions that make that discovery process so very, very difficult.

The books that the former lieutenant governor of Ontario had shipped to villages across the north in a campaign that I hope will continue, are needed to make that breakthrough, and I suspect, always will be for the young of those outside of the loop. (And yes, it would be nice if a lot of those books reflected Thomas King's concern for The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative).

Sort of like the difference between those enlightened individuals that Darnton has studied so thoroughly, and the sans culotte (hope I got that right)of any age that he is sure will not ever read his work - poor them.


Was listening to Gian Ghomeshi yesterday and he was talking about the fact that Vancouver and Montreal have the 2 best public libraries on the planet. 

The Sun folks must be choking on their beers having to publish good news for Gregor Robertson

Vancouver ties with Montreal for best library

Vancouver boasts the No. 1 public library in the world, according to a German research project.

The study ranked libraries in major international centres for both their digital and physical services and spaces.

Vancouver Public Library tied with Montreal for the top honour, with libraries in Chicago, San Francisco, Shanghai and Toronto close behind.

“Vancouver is a world-class city and we’re extremely pleased and humbled to be recognized as a top world-class library,” said VPL chief librarian Sandra Singh. “It’s gratifying to be in such esteemed library company, and we’re excited to be playing a part in highlighting Vancouver on the world map through our work supporting an informed, engaged and connected city.”

The criteria for the study, by Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf, included physical factors ranging from the building’s architecture to whether people can return borrowed material in a wide variety of locations. The digital factors ranged from the size of the library’s digital collection to its use of social media.

Vancouver ranked well in both the digital and physical sections of the study.



Photo taken on Dec. 19, 2013 shows Canada's Vancouver Public Library that has been ranked the number one public library in the world by Germany's Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf. They surveyed libraries in 31 cities around the world and Vancouver came out on top. Chicago, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Toronto were also in the top five. At the bottom of the list were the public libraries in Frankfurt, London, and Dubai. (Xinhua/Sergei Bachlakov)



And the tie goes to:

La Grande Bibliothèque, Montréal

ETA: And outside view:


C'est beau Unionist.

One of the many keys to Canada's fabulous future are our leading edge libraries - the Richmond, BC library system have been doing wonders adapting to the technological age, and West Vancouver must lead the way in quality resources such as their fabulous music collection..


I don't remember a public library system in Montreal when I lived there (late '80s). I remember looking for one and being told that they were all private libraries. I didn't even know what that meant. I do remember the Westmount library and that you had to buy a membership to take out books there. Possibly even to use it?


There was most certainly a public library system in Montréal in the late 1980s, however, it was woefully inadequate. BANQ is for all of Québec, though obviously most easily accessible for people in and around the city

We are very happy to have a brand new branch library near where I live:,100603689&_dad=port... (just the first part, afterwards a borough council meeting) and this virtual visit before it opened: The opening was a big party, especially for children. The library is lovely, as is its natural light, but most of the vegetation shown doesn't exist yet - there is a park behind it, like a central square of a new neighbourhood, Quartier 54 ("affordable" condos and social housing - a co-op and non-profit housing), but it will only be landscaped this coming spring and summer, so I'll most likely be dead before the trees are as tall as in the images...

A new library is really something to celebrate!

The other major difference, other than the BANQ, is the very efficient interlibrary loan, which can all be done online, to collect books and other documents at a nearby library.

Vancouver's is very impressive.


In Montreal, like many other cities, the first public libraries were established in the early 1800s as part of various philanthropic efforts to educate the working class. With some supporters and champions having a more explicitly political agenda, - to mobilize said newly literate and educated working classes into political action.

Many of these libraries went by the name of "Mechanics Institutes" - a legacy from the UK where there was a broad based movement of workingmen's educational associations.  When the state or city eventually set up a truly public library system - many of these Mechanics Institutes then converted into public libraries.

My Mother (a retired librarian) tells me that the branch of the Montreal Childrens Library on Atwater is in the old Mechanics Institute building.


I agree lagatta that the inter-library loan aspect to most libraries now is quite impressive as well as essential with the high cost of purchasing, cataloging, and storing books, etc.


At one time using libraries and playing sports in muncipal facilities were covered by the tax base. Now it is user-pay which is a royal pain in the ass alrthough these resources have to be paid for somehow. Property taxes is the way to go imo, otherwise it is just another attack on the poor.


Yes, the Atwater Library is the old Mechanic's Institute here.

Fortunately, there are few if any user fees here at the Mtl Public Libraries or the BANQ.


We will need to be vigilant about this as I'm sure some pencil-pushers will want to go there due to the financial pressures that arise periodically.


Maybe this belongs in the Science - Tech thread, but as its on the topic of libraries  - just to re-assure us that the Feds are on top of this whole New Age Library thing, here is is a report on the shuttering of a network of regional scentific libraries  ....

And here's an accompanying picture from the dumpster out behind the Maurice Lamontagne Institute Library in Mont-Joli, doing the rounds on Twitter today.

Embedded image permalink


The biggest change in libraries I notice here isn't technological - it has to do with programming and services, specifically for children. When our kids were toddlers I took them every week to a free reading and activity program that runs twice a week at all the libraries here, and are free for anyone who wants to drop in. I sure appreciated it, and I can imagine it was a welcome relief for a lot of other parents too.

Another change from when I was younger - puzzles, toys and games, and of course DVDs - not just scholarly stuff, but regular TV shows and movies. I don't know about other libraries, but they are always renewing and selling old stock here, with most books three for a dollar.It's certainly a change from the old conception of a library, and it is good, since it gets people in and using the place

Sad thing is, I spoke to someone at the main branch here who said they don't have room for most of their books on the shelves. Many must be retrieved from the basement.