The Library, the University, and Communities of Readers
The changing and unchanging nature of research collections

By Steven Enniss, Curator of Literary Collections, Woodruff library


 

 

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The Big Squeeze
Crises in scholarly publishing and library acquisitions put pressure on faculty

Steve Strange, Philosophy

In their recent book, The Social Life of Information, co-authors John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid tell the story of the historian they encountered in a European archive who patiently paused to smell each letter he came to in the course of his research. When finally asked what he was doing, the historian explained he was documenting the outbreak of cholera in eighteenth-century Europe, and from the faint scent of vinegar still on the letters he could tell where people had attempted to disinfect against the further spread of the disease.

Though hardly a representative example of research with primary materials, this anecdote makes an important point. We learn not only from the content of historical records but also from their physical form. Primary documents remain important not because they may smell like vinegar but because they are themselves elements in a complex social exchange with its own lessons to teach.

There is a tendency among many technologists and the lay public alike to speak of information as a generic and easily transferable commodity--to speak, in other words, as if all information were reducible to bits and bytes. But information stripped of its social and cultural context is an impoverished thing indeed.

Don't get me wrong. The communication tools, the search and retrieval capabilities, and the graphic reproductive qualities of the latest technologies are indeed stunning and are transforming libraries and the larger university in lasting ways. It matters, however, whether we are discussing the latest article from JAMA, a set of census data, today's newspaper, an historical diary, a body of case law, an Elizabethan sonnet or, for that matter, Stephen King's latest novella. Each of these texts emerges from and is pitched to a specific and highly evolved community of readers with its own practices of reading and its own larger disciplinary values. Nevertheless, the notion that electronic texts will replace books altogether continues to hold currency with a surprising number of our colleagues who are willing, it sometimes seems, to subsume all textual differences to a more generic notion of information.

Those of us who work in libraries hear reports of the death of the book with some frequency. I am often asked what will become of the library when all books are converted into electronic form. Often the one asking seems to view the library as an antiquated holdover from some distant past. I would insist, however, that libraries not only remain vital, but that they remain vital because they are places where the kinds of textual differences that I am describing are widely respected.

It not only matters what particular text one has in mind but also what use one envisions for it. To take only one example, the Beck Center of the Woodruff Library holds 22 volumes of W.B. Yeats' work in electronic form on a single cd. Students can search that vast database for repetitions of word or phrase and, by doing so, discover linkages within the body of Yeats' work that would take many hours of study to find any other way. Among the poems present in the database is the text of Yeats' "O Do Not Love Too Long," a poem which the library also holds in the 1908 volume of his Collected Works. In the printed edition the poem appears in a larger series of poems composed, as Yeats explains, "before the big wind of nineteen hundred and three blew down so many trees, & troubled the wild creatures, & changed the look of things. . . ." A student may also find the poem in the library's copy of the October 1905 issue of The Acorn, a lavish fine printing that is particularly useful for one interested in the contemporary reception of Yeats' work. If one visits special collections, one will find in Yeats' own hand an early draft of this same poem written in that tumultuous year soon after learning that the woman he loved had chosen to marry another.

Something here is stronger even than the smell of vinegar. Does this handwritten draft contain unique information? I suppose one could put it that way, but to speak of an artifact of such personal power as information is certainly to constrict our reading and to debase the whole practice of scholarship.

Are these multiple texts merely redundancies to be discarded in favor of the latest offering from NetLibrary? I don't think so. Each of these texts has important lessons to teach one able to read both its content and its form. Rhetoric that reinforces simplistic notions of texts has, I believe, contributed to a dumbing down of reading in our own time. Our students need to be aware of the vast potential of library collections for a range of scholarly inquiry. Equally important, they must be trained in and make a commitment to the disciplines that will inform life-long patterns of learning.

The demands of different disciplines will vary, and rightly so. Where one field may place the highest value on speed, another may value the layers of nuance
present in a work's form and in the evidence of its larger cultural assimilation. The challenge for our libraries is to serve those complex and varied needs thoughtfully, without pitting technologies against one another.

Towards that end, three major professional associations (the Association of Research Libraries, the Modern Language Association, and the American Historical Association) have issued a joint report that outlines many of the challenges ahead for the nation's research libraries. Titled Preserving Research Collections: A Collaboration Between Librarians and Scholars, it attempts to restore that balance between stewardship of our libraries' existing print collections and of the newest electronic formats. The report, which merits our attention, may be found at www.arl.org/preserv/prc.html.

As we confront the challenges this report outlines, we should be guided, I believe, not by rhetoric that reduces learning to a mere exchange of information but rather by a respect for the rich layers of value in our library's collections and in our practices of scholarship.