Beyond the internet

November 2012

  • Warren Bebbington

The University of Adelaide’s Vice-Chancellor argues that the internet will never replace the traditional university library and its books. 

I begin with three examples of how my own use of university libraries has transformed in the past five years.

A year ago, I gave a dinner speech on Music in Ancient Sumer and Babylon – which bristled with slides of ancient instruments and references to literature. These slides and references were gathered without ever entering a library, entirely by online access to the University Of Pennsylvania Antiquities collection. 

Also last year, an undergraduate music seminar I taught had its listening requirements entirely delivered by downloading to student iPods and smart phones, via a licence arranged by the library. After years of trying in vain to have students buy CDs or do their assigned listening sitting in the library, I found that providing the listening as downloads lead to a dramatic improvement in student engagement with the content: never before had I seen such full participation in the weekly reading and listening assignments.

Two months ago my address on my university’s new Strategic Plan contained a section on the university’s founding and early history, which was prepared largely through online university archives, locating rare 19th century documents using searchable tools and documents the University had provided on open access. The address was prepared from interstate, and would not have had the historical content were it not for this service.

Digitised antiquities, downloadable listening assignments, and open-access, online archives: certainly none of this would have been possible even five years ago. We all speak of the effects on the university of the digital revolution, but few parts of the university have traversed such a dramatic revolution over the past five years as the library. And what a change this has been: 10 years ago we all endured depressing predictions of the ‘death of the book’; yet reports of its death – as Mark Twain said  – are greatly exaggerated. Far from being depressing, the decade turned out to be the most exciting and dynamic time to be in libraries in memory.

Most exciting was that no one had any idea where online content was heading: found offering free online books increased book sales rather than killing them off; Harvard Princeton and MIT found putting their course content online increased rather than reduced demand for their traditional courses. 

Thus university libraries as they are now: “changed, changed utterly” as Yeats would say. Instead of bookshelves there are computer terminals in vast study areas, the few shelves that remain largely devoted to special collections. Instead of the army of library assistants checking out borrowed books and reshelving returned books there are professional librarians with newly-enhanced information and advisory roles; instead of local acquisition arrangements increasingly there are consortiums with neighbouring institutions, to ensure a networked approach to rapacious international subscription houses, and to preserve a common repository of physical copies of record.

Change in universities brings challenges. First, there is the increasing dominance of the laboratory sciences in universities, concentrating grant monies on major health and societal problems, which governments believe can chiefly be addressed by laboratory research – one scientist Vice-Chancellor I know announces proudly he has never entered a library, nor can he imagine what a library could offer that he needs. This development threatens to reduce libraries from being the heart of the campus as a whole to being merely a humanities and social sciences lab.

Second, there is the carefree preoccupation with short-term needs. Seemingly universal online access to information obscures the enduring importance of long-term preservation and maintenance of a cultural record in permanent physical form. We have forgotten history here: in the dark ages following the fall of the Roman Empire, with the dispersal of imperial institutions across Europe and the advance of Barbarians and others, the works of Plato and Aristotle nearly disappeared: for one dangerous moment there were little more than a handful of copies of the Greek philosophers left on earth, and those mostly in Persia and the learned academies of the East.

Do we need to worry about that kind of political or cultural cataclysm occurring again? Indeed we do: catastrophic climate change threatens, world food shortage is a real possibility, and nuclear holocaust remains a button away. Much less known than the Google project to digitise and index all knowledge on the World Wide Web, but equally important, is the 10,000 Year Library Project – creating a time capsule-like underground repository of all human knowledge in conditions that will survive world famine, nuclear holocaust, or the submerging of nations, and be available far into the distant future, to preserve Western learning from whatever may befall it.

Let us remember, as Ian McNeely reminds us in Reinventing Knowledge, the library is the oldest of the institutions of Western intellectual life – older than the medieval university, older than the monastery which came before it. The first library was established at Alexandria around 300 BC and its attempt to collect all the world’s knowledge established two critical principles that have characterised Western culture since: first, that writing was better than an oral tradition for preserving and transmitting knowledge, because it preserved knowledge perfectly in physical form; and second, that the organisation of knowledge – cataloguing – was as important as knowledge itself, fundamental to how we create it and draw on it in our daily lives.

To be sure, the emergence of the internet has great potential to reshape the way we produce, preserve and transmit knowledge. But it does not guarantee the progress of knowledge. Indeed, it risks drawing the West into two dreadful errors – first, into thinking that access to information equals the acquisition of knowledge itself. In any online chat site, the voice of the expert seems quaint; but it is this we must preserve. We must not be deceived by the ease of access to information on the internet: knowledge has always required effort and wit to attain. And the second error is that, with the immediate and universal online availability of information, permanent physical preservation of the Western cultural record is no longer important. Librarians know otherwise.

Of course, there are new opportunities for libraries: such as the chance for librarians to join with teaching staff in creating compelling content for students through technology and new formats. But critically, we must assert again the importance of expert library knowledge and authority in the organisation, search and advice about knowledge.

We live in a potentially destabilising time, where once again we must think how to revitalise the pursuit of knowledge as institutions transform around us. It is a time where circumstances are akin to that of the founding of ancient Alexandrian Library itself.

Professor Warren Bebbington is the Vice-Chancellor, University of Adelaide





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