Come back Zenodotus. All is forgiven.

Beware digi-evangelists and search engines, says Tara Brabazon. It is still real-life librarians, past and present, who remain the true custodians of human knowledge

April 10, 2008

Zenodotus is commemorated as the first librarian in the Library of Alexandria. A scholar of Homer, he – along with Eratosthenes, Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchos of Samothrace – is a crucible of knowledge that pours into the myth of the Library of Alexandria. For these early librarians, independent scholarship was embedded in their other roles of classifying and preserving the papyrus and platforms of ideas.

I am not a librarian but remain inspired by Zenodotus who constructed and catalogued, wrote and referenced, created and configured. I still find something of this spirit and commitment whenever a community of librarians gather. Unfortunately these days, I rarely have the chance to attend such important events. Monitoring quality assurance, skills development, generic competencies and subject benchmarks keeps most of us anchored to spreadsheets and enthralled by the grandeur and gravity of our email’s inbox. But the conferences and dialogues that matter most – much more than marketing meetings or the entrails of capacity-building working lunches – are between librarians and teachers. There is a reason for my commitment, and it involves the repayment of a scholarly debt.

A decade ago, at 29 years of age, I was taught by an extraordinary librarian – a contemporary Zenodotus – who was running several courses in a new graduate diploma of internet studies. His name was – and is – Ross Harvey. I enrolled in this programme as a form of professional development. Those of us who were teaching at the almost evangelical start of the e-ducation boom may remember managers talking in expansive metaphors about the fu-u-u-cha of online teaching, quietly counting the cost savings and staff reductions while hiding behind phrases such as “student-centred learning” and “work-related skills”. Junior teaching bunnies like me had to make the naive promises and ill-considered strategies function in curriculum and daily teaching timetables, while moderating and controlling the unexpected consequences of this web-delivered “revolution”.

After managing – just – to teach online courses in 1997 and 1998 using FrontPage (this was the era before the proliferation of the intuitive Dreamweaver) and a rudimentary version of WebCT, I was confronting some … ummmm … challenges. The utopic student-free campus had not been created. Technical support was neither technical nor supportive because staff were rarely at their desks. They were delivering some fine conference papers to other staff with the designation “Technical Support” who were similarly enjoying the “challenges” and “surprises” of the “virtual classroom”, but seemed to enjoy being as far away from their email and telephone as possible during the semester. I have blocked most of my tortured memories from this time, but one screaming slogan has stayed with me:

HELP ME I’M DROWNING.

Sorry. My apologies. Let me relanguage my past panic to suit contemporary crisis-management strategies:

It is important in my PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT REVIEW that I flag with my LINE MANAGER this moment of TRANSITION. I may require JUST-IN-TIME TRAINING to initiate FUTURE-ORIENTED STRATEGIES to assist our student in WORK-RELATED LEARNING.

At that moment of ill-planned “digital revolution” in teaching, learning and administration, a graduate diploma in internet studies was my tourniquet of choice. Some might have substituted a nice drop of chardonnay, burning incense or yoga. Any of these would have been more useful than my selection. While feral tech-heads taught much of the course in “remote” mode (see my previous comment about Technical Support conference attendance), the staff breezily stated in the discussion forum – often in a message left just before they taxied to the airport – that “we” can best study the online environment while being online. This is like suggesting “we” can best learn about suicide by killing ourselves. Experientially, it may be correct, but it is not a future-oriented strategy.

As the matured aged scholars, working mothers and over-stretched teachers left the course because they could not commit to late-evening synchronous “chat” about the excitements of late-evening synchronous “chat”, the only students remaining were young full-fee-paying international students who thought that this was a pretty easy “course” and one stroppy blonde media historian who knew that “experiencing” was not the same as learning but was desperate to avoid the dire last solution to the online teaching crisis: filling the house with incense until broadband arrived in rural Australia.

I should not have been surprised that the excitement of the digi-present seemed to erase all pretence of academic inquiry. This was the time that celebrated the loopy hippies on/in The Well. Sherry Turkle promised that life on the screen would complete that incomplete revolution of May 1968 and Howard Rheingold believed that the new must always be better. Riding in this digital Jefferson Airplane, Ross Harvey’s quiet scholarship, affirming continuities rather than change, and preservation rather than destruction, still provides an inspiration for my teaching and research, on and offline.

He has been a great colleague for so many scholars around the world. He believes in the strength of the partnership between librarians and teachers, librarians and academics, librarians and readers, librarians and writers. He encourages a careful dialogue between the past and the present. He was awarded a fellowship citation by his home country’s Library and Information Association and, like the best of New Zealanders, he confirms that citizens of this antipodal nation may be named after kiwis, a flightless bird, yet they fly around the world changing those they meet. He is now a visiting professor at the University of Glasgow but his academic career has swept through Australia, Canada, Singapore and the US.

Remembering what Ross has taught me by example as much as curriculum, my role is to recognise the role, expertise and ability of librarians. At the moment when digi-evangelists such as Chris Anderson give a search engine the status of an oracle, it is pivotal that we remind students, parents, citizens and policy-makers about libraries being the cranium of a culture and librarians being the custodians of human knowledge.

Such a stance is not “against” the web, Google or the internet. But it is the time to stand up against anything that blocks the recognition that librarians are the best guides to help us in transforming random and scattered information into a considered catalogue of knowledge. The idea that, in the past ten years, we have so easily accepted the metaphor of the internet as a library has resulted in librarians being displaced from function, and information literacy rendered redundant because a search engine lists hits in a particular way. In remembering Ross – in remembering the importance of preservation – and with intellectual generosity for the great scholars who have preceded us, we recognise a final gritty truth. Without librarians, there is no information age. There is only a cursor moving us to sponsored links. Our students and fellow citizens deserve much more.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies at the University of Brighton.

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