January 2000

The Trustee communicates issues affecting libraries and library services. Once a library and systems join LTA, all their trustees automatically receive this quarterly publication published by LTA. To learn more about membership in LTA, Click Here.

Millennial Wish For A Small Library

by Dr. William Taber, NYSALB Trustee

January 2000 issue of Trustee

As you read this, a new century and a new millennium have embraced us. Very few generations in the constantly changing parade of human life can observe this numerical milestone and be challenged to think for a moment in its rather long time frames. The date is nothing more than an infrequent and artificial marker in time, but it does jog us (for a moment only?) out of our usual perspectives of the next hour, day, or perhaps budget year.

As any geologist will tell you, a millennium is a very short period of time. About 12 of them have passed since the retreat of the glacier from over the landscape on which we stand here in New York State, an event probably observed by Native Americans. If that seems like a long time, compare it with the sixty thousand millennia that separate us from the last gasps of the dinosaurs whose species already had evolved and ruled for about twice that period of time. And life itself was old before they started.

In just the last single millennium, the Roman Empire collapsed, to be replaced by the intellectual disasters of the Dark Ages; feudalisms and monarchies and empires arose and collapsed with terrible losses; doctrinaire political and religious justifications for tyranny and exploitation held steel-like grips upon the minds of generations, ultimately to fail and to be replaced by something else, often as bad or worse than what had preceded it. The process has continued throughout this last century which has seen the horrors associated with the Kaiser, Hitler, the Japanese Empire, the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Kosovo, and so on. Cohesion on all levels is dissolvable; even our own democratic country split apart after less than a century and was reunited only by a major internal war. History does not stop.

Here is where libraries come in. For during these centuries, there emerged, very slowly and usually with great difficulties, a few creative people who unearthed some of the lost knowledge, who created new ideas and new knowledge, and who influenced the technology, the thinking and ultimately the behavior of significant populations. Their contributions were, and still are, always in danger of being lost, because it is the fate of human populations to suffer the steady infusion of total ignorance and to lose knowledge and experience as the cycles of birth and death roll on.

Ignorance and its allies (narrowness of experience, fearfulness, greed, thirsts for power and precedence) are forever; enlightenment and knowledge exist only as long as human effort maintains them and passes them on effectively. Libraries are a key to this function; for they are our human invention to preserve the products of the human mind and to make them available to humanity in general, not just to the wealthy or powerful.

A fairly long view of history tends to be tragic. For I have no doubt that the major civilization collapses that occur throughout all human history will be in our future as well. The "when" is unknown (hopefully not within the new century -- you see, I am recklessly optimistic); the "why" and the "who" are known; for they will be as always the result of our own degradation of knowledge, of resolve, of timely action, and of effective resistance to greed and power and frivolity on the part of those who control our institutions.

Small public libraries may help to postpone the next collapse and to limit its eventual cost to humanity.

With this framework in mind, what I wish for our small libraries in the next century and the next millennium is something different from our needs for more space, reliable and adequate budgets for a change, and secure political support.

You and I can wish for whatever will help us and our successors to preserve knowledge and the products of culture and to forever make them available to a constantly renewed population. We can use the marvels of digital access to information to reduce the costs of our remoteness but resist becoming DEPENDENT upon them. For example, when information is digitized, its usefulness automatically becomes dependent upon the survival of the "hi tech" commercial, political and technical infrastructure of law, manufacturers, repairmen, and electricity. Infrastructures collapse for all kinds of reasons, lines are cut, technology is forgotten, funds disappear, electromagnetic pulses destroy electronic equipment. If all the knowledge of the world is on a SUPER MAG CD DVD PLUS but it can't be read because the machinery won't work or no longer exists, that knowledge may be lost forever. Simple techniques and local collections are good when bad times undermine the "hi tech" marvels.

Just as "low tech" has a survival value, remote dispersal and high duplication have advantages as well.

The burning of the libraries of Alexandria was a catastrophic destruction of the human knowledge of that time brought together into one place. If, in post-Roman times, "...the Irish Saved Civilization", their remoteness was a precious factor. Your remote small public library is likewise an outpost of civilization removed from the center of interesting events; as a group, the small libraries of New York State are a dispersed resource. Electronic access to information stored elsewhere reduces that dispersal only if it replaces local collections rather than supplements them.

Duplication of information is another resource for bad times, and this is where the digital revolution is a great positive (but only as long as the infra-structures support it). When books were hand drawn or painted, they were few in number and hence very susceptible to extinction. Centuries later the printing press poured out hundreds, then thousands and millions of copies of books and increased the probability that information (somewhere!) would survive the destructions of evil times. Likewise, digital technology has made the duplication of text and graphics hugely efficient and world-wide. Such information in digital form is not highly vulnerable to limited regional catastrophe as long as (but only as long as) the repositories of electronic data remain safely elsewhere in the world.

What would I like to see during the next century (other than peace and prosperity for all and rationality and integrity among politicians)? I would like to see a "hi tech" technology in wide use (at least in every library) that will imprint or burn in from digitized sources the text and graphics of all human literature in VERY small print size (barely legible under pretty high magnification) upon extremely thin, light but durable sheets or rolls of (say) stainless steel or non-biodegradable plastics. These will be loanable to patrons with relatively simple electronic magnifying readers or projectors which will be far lighter and just as versatile as the e-books already on the market. New acquisitions will be downloaded electronically and "printed" out automatically in the library. Inter-library loans will be almost instantaneous. And best of all: when the next collapse arrives, these sheets will survive in large numbers, in remote areas (your library) and will be readable (perhaps painfully and slowly) with "lo tech" technology -- visual magnification. Maybe this time it will be YOU, not Ireland, who saves civilization.

I heat my house with oil from Arabia and electricity from Niagara. But I also have a wood stove.

Copyright © 2010-2018 Prominence Solutions     |     Development & Hosting by Prominence Solutions     |     Site Map