The Lord’s Library

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
3 January, 2017
Editorial: 62
Fecha de publicación original: 11 marzo, 1997

Date of publication: 11/3/1997. Editorial 62.

Losing I learned: what I learned was more valuable than what I lost

“I only buy books on the Internet now, I don’t go to bookshops any more”, is what a friend, an inveterate reader, told me the other day. Five months ago he had asked me to pronounce a “bar conference” for him. It cost me a few orujos and a bad headache to persuade him that the Internet didn’t have anything to do with the alarming “fin de siècle” vision which he had stored in some corner of his cerebellum. “Let’s see, where would you go if you wanted to get hold of a book by Prince Kropotkin?” I asked him artfully because I know where his Achilles’ heel lies. “I’d visit the second-hand bookshops”, he replied. “And how long would it take you to find what you were looking for, or any other book for that matter, by the thousands of other authors whose work is swallowed up by the voracious appetite for the publishing houses which makes books disappear off the shelves before one has EVEN had the chance to glance at them?” He didn’t have any answer to that. “Well, let’s have a look at the Internet, because they are all there and in 48 hours you could be holding any of them in your hot little hands”. “I’d have to pay for it, wouldn’t I?”, he concluded, giving in to the inevitable: he had no other option than to enter the most enormous library ever constructed by the human race. Not the Alexandrian, not the Library of Congress. And, this despite the fact that it doesn’t yet count on donations from many countries, such as, for example, just to name a couple, China and India. But they are on their way, and in due course they will all be united in one colossal bookshop.

The publishing business is possibly the first production sector which is seeing its mirror image emerging before its very eyes in cyberspace. It certainly lends itself to this, and it is the perfect guinea pig for this type of experiment. But its projection on the Internet goes way beyond the written word or hypertext. What it is giving rise to is an arsenal of new skills for acquiring and managing knowledge by means of new reference points which are making the cultural dikes which we have constructed, so efficiently, over the centuries, overflow. The digital library (shouldn’t we be writing that in capital letters by now?), so scorned by those who defend the printed word or the undeniable pleasure of browsing through familiar old bookshops, is making the walls which prevented access to written work tumble and fall. In every corner of the world, regardless of sex, age, or one’s social or cultural position, being connected to the Net is sufficient to cross over the barriers so patiently built up by the rigours of economics. The big centres which characterised the colonial world, concentrating scientific production, literature, essays or genre of whatever kind, in the metropolises, are now within easy reach at the mere touch of the appropriate button. I spent three years studying in the British Library, close to the hallowed seat where Karl Marx sat (an English Trotsky-ite “owned” it when I was there and never lent it to anybody. He was deaf to all arguments as I was able to witness for myself when he was approached by an Egyptian one day who begged, in vain, to be allowed to sit there just one morning. I’m not sure what kind of spiritual experience he expected from it). Seated all around me were a rich variety of fauna, people from any number of African countries, the Caribbean or Asia who had made great sacrifices to be able to consult, at last, the mysteries of knowledge which would turn them into different people by the time they went home (if they went home). I discovered the most extraordinary characters. The person at the desk next to mine spent three months studying a minute incunable with an attractive title: The Essence of Love. Another was writing a thesis on the agriculture of his country (India) with the aid of maps which only existed in the British Museum. The other day I found that book on love in the Net. And the maps won’t take long to get into cyberspace, I’m sure. In addition, they will be better looked after there and there is no risk of the ancient parchment crumbling in one’s hands.

The digital library will force us to develop new skills to get around its packed shelves. Umberto Eco put it very well in the March number of Wired, when he said, “I can go into a bookshop and understand its layout in a few seconds. I can glance at the spine of a book and make a good guess at its content from a number of signs. If I see the words Harvard University Press, I know it’s probably not going to be a cheap romance. I go onto the Net and I don’t have those skills”. Not yet, not in his case. Nevertheless, the speed at which the digital library is being constructed, together with the “spirit of the Internet”, that peculiar way in which knowledge is shared and distributed, will make that experience child’s play very shortly. In Spain, for example, Biblionet has just begun cataloguing all school books. Schools will have access to books classified by experts and within reach of students and teachers both simply and quickly. And this does not just mean the books which have always formed part of its strict scholarly tradition, but also a vast catalogue of other sources as the whole system will be interconnected, at the same time, to other libraries on the Net. Where once access to the great old master or, later, to the selective physical libraries ruled –a very hierarchical form of attaining knowledge–, now a completely decentralised and electronically distributed way of accessing the immense reservoir of knowledge stored up by the human race will be the order of the day.

The digital library presents us, of course, with new problems and difficulties unique to cyberspace. Firstly, faced with this wealth of written information the question is who will teach our children, who will guide adults? What will the conclusion be to a training process which does not have a clear result? What will the outstanding features of an education in this diffuse, overpopulated and interactive environment be? These are just some of the questions that will be trying to address in the following issues and I hope I can count on the contributions of some of the builders of the digital library.

Some addresses of interest: Libro WebAmazon BooksWWW Virtual Library

Translation: Bridget King