The shape of things to come

Tara Brabazon ponders a future bereft of the custodians of knowledge. Science fiction – or the all-too-probable result of the devaluation of librarians?

September 25, 2008

Obesity epidemic. Gastric bands. Environmentally friendly light bulbs. Economic downturn. Credit crunch. War on terror. Pitbull with lipstick.

These phrases seem to arrive just in time to simplify, categorise and organise our relationship with unexpected events in the world. Unfortunately the phrase Campaign for the Book is not on this list of soundbite diagnoses and solutions. Neither is The Year of Reading.

Both are important initiatives from 2008, but they have been lost in the buzz of nutritional advice from celebrity chefs and Elton John’s stern words to young starlets about drug-fuelled excesses.

In such a pot-kettle-black media landscape, Alan Gibbons, a well-known children’s writer, has introduced a national programme to increase the profile of books and reading.

I wish him well in his Campaign for the Book and completely support this initiative. But the focus of attention is on an inanimate object, a book, and not the profession that helps shape and improve our relationship to information wherever it may be found. A Campaign for Librarians is seemingly without high-profile supporters.

The valuing of objects over occupations has consequences. Actually, librarians – in a time of volatile platform migration – are more important than books. As Geoffrey Nunberg suggested in the prescient paper “The Places of Books in the Age of Electronic Reproduction” (Future Libraries, 1993): “It is not books as such we are interested in, but the forms and institutions that surround their use.”

Librarians are the custodians of forms and institutions, transforming a platform for information into the foundation for learning.

Teachers are lucky. Numerous studies confirm that student learning and exam results are improved by teachers intervening in the relationship between scholar and curriculum. While teachers remain underpaid and undervalued in comparison to pre-credit crunch corporate executives, at least there is a popular consciousness that they are integral to learning and that an education system cannot function without them.

Librarians are not granted such a profile. It is little wonder Judith Siess titled her monograph The Visible Librarian, showing how to increase the status and influence of her colleagues through marketing and promotion.

It is easier to fight to save a building like a library or an object like a book rather than the profession that manages them. While there have been some famous librarians in popular culture, of which Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the clearest example, mostly they are ignored, decentred and marginalised.

But it is not only a question of popular culture or public relations. The problem is – in the midst of our information age – that a series of inaccurate equivalences have been assembled. Access is equated with literacy.

Use of a search engine has undermined the evaluation of the returned results. Only when seeing information literacy as a process that requires expertise and attention, rather than unconsciously tumbling from, will librarians gain the respect necessary to fulfil their increasingly urgent role.

Infrastructure – books, hardware or software – do not differentiate organisations. As Nicholas Carr has argued in The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google, computing systems are our century’s equivalent of electricity. They are a utility. Yet the focus on the new, rather than the efficient or useful, means that the profession that can provide the intellectual architecture to align data and users is being discredited, underpaid and undervalued. We have spent the past decade building systems when we should have been building services and literacies.

We do not live in an information economy. We live in a time economy. There is plenty of information. Time is the valuable commodity. Unfortunately, information is increasingly locked in silos: restricted, chaotic and poorly categorised.

Sorting this low-quality, random and jumbled information wastes time. It is for this reason that Microsoft SharePoint has attained such popularity as the corporate world attempts to manage and integrate “collaborative media”. A physical “sharepoint” for information is the library. A virtual “sharepoint” is the library portal. The corporeal sharepoint is the librarian.

There is nothing more dangerous than having one idea. We have lived on that one idea for a while now: that technology will inevitably improve our lives. Certainly, we are more productive and efficient. Communication is instantaneous.

Shopping is globally sourced. We have more “things” – food, clothing, opportunities for leisure and pleasure – than our grandparents could have ever imagined. But at some point, all of us will need another idea.

If the image and reality of librarianship can be reconciled with the image and reality of information, then we may find another idea. One of the most moving popular cultural interventions in this narrative of decline and disrespect for librarians was the 2002 film version H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which was directed by Simon Wells, the author’s great grandson.

The original novel featured only one mention of libraries. Seemingly, through time, books had turned to dust. But the film was different because of the expansive presence of Vox 114, a holographic librarian, which initially seems a slight on the profession, rendering corporeal librarians redundant.

As an artificial intelligence, librarians had literally been absorbed into technological platforms. Yet Vox survived the destruction of the Moon and the fragmentation of humanity into Eloi and Morlocks. Significantly, as humans moved into a post-writing, post-print age, the last librarian catalogued stories, memories and myths. He never forgot a face.

When the Time Traveller finally destroyed his machine and was exiled in the future, it was Vox’s stories and information that allowed civilisation to be rebuilt. Without a librarian – rather than a library – a complex, humane and socially just future was not possible. When the buildings and books have crumbled to dust, the knowledge of the librarian remains.

Vox’s survival through war, cannibalism and feudalism offers a popular cultural apparition for the future. While Vox was not part of H. G. Wells’ original text, the great science-fiction writer often thought of libraries and librarians.

In 1937, addressing the World Congress of Universal Documentation in Paris, Wells said: “Few people as yet, outside the world of expert librarians and museum curators and so forth, know how manageable well-ordered facts can be made, however multitudinous, and how swiftly and completely even the rarest visions and the most recondite matters can be recalled, once they have been put in place in a well-ordered scheme of reference and reproduction... There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements, to the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory for all mankind.”

Such arguments developed into Wells’ book World Brain, where he argued that the technological “revolution” of microfilm would create opportunities for the world’s largest encyclopaedia.

Microfilm did not reach his promise. Each subsequent “revolution” in technology never quite triggered the transformation of social structures that was hoped. But even through this utopic posturing, Wells knew the value of managing “facts” and confirmed the value of librarians in this process.

As we think about the future during our own troubled times – scarred, like Wells’, by war and financial turmoil – we can campaign for new technology or older technology. We can Google more information. But there is another option: to support the one profession that can preserve and transform, structure and analyse, speak and remember.

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