Notes to "The Virtual Library is Dead"

[1] This is the second in a series of studies addressing contemporary issues of networked information in a historical context; the first, 'St. Augustine to NREN: The Tree of Knowledge and How It Grows', The Serials Librarian 23.3/4 (1993), 21-41 (also in If We Build It: Scholarly Communications and Networking Technologies [New York, 1993], 21-41; and in Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussion Lists: Third Edition [Washington, 1993] 1-11), concentrated on the shaping influence of the codex page and the implicit forms of the organization of information. Here the emphasis is rather on the communities and institutions that organize and use that information.

[2]. Washington Post, Sunday 21 November 1993, Book World. One expectation implicit in the contemporary dream is that its realization will obviate the need for buildings, but the "virtual library" appeals even to those who are building a very large building indeed: G. Grunberg and A. Giffard, Head Librarian and Head of Informational Services for the new Bibliothèque de France, use the phrase as one of many approximations of the future they sketch in their "New Orders of Knowledge, New Technologies of Reading," in Representations 42 (1993), at p. 89. That whole issue of Representations is devoted to "The Future Library" and offers a fascinating range of theoretical and practical discussion, centered on but not limited to the Bibliothèque de France, and including an important article by Jane Ginsburg on the future of copyright in an electronic environment.

[3]. A news report of October 10, 1984 says of Detroit Tigers catcher Lance Parrish that "his mind is a virtual library of do's and don'ts against most hitters".

[4]. Computerworld for July 16, 1984.

[5]. From a UPI news report, March 6, 1987. A few months earlier, a Chicago Tribune story (September 10, 1986) about the French Minitel service seems to use it still in the sense of "virtually a library": 'With a Minitel one can reserve air flights and hotels, check the weather, the news, have a virtual library of information at the fingertips and engage in computer conversations with politicians.'

[6]. I take it as confirmation that when I cited this article in the oral presentation of this paper at the ARL/AAUP Symposium, numerous nodding heads around the room showed that the invocation of this article (which few indeed have read lately!) is a familiar ritual in meetings devoted to the electronic library.

[7]. Two points need to be addressed tangentially here, one to recur later. First, how do I happen to have this lovely reference to a yellowed and long forgotten newspaper page? I get it from an article of 1950 vintage by my late University of Pennsylvania colleague Rudolf Hirsch, a widely-regarded student of the history of the book, collected in his Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550 (2nd. ed., Wiesbaden, 1974), who was already then thinking of the bookless future in a short synthesis on the future of the library forty years ago. Second, note carefully that the function of the new and amazingly fast (even by 1993 standards) technology is presented precisely as a tool for using a traditional, familiar, famously all-possessing institutional library of the present. The social and intellectual structures of the present are assumed to be stable and to be a useful basis for understanding the new technology.

[8]. Here it is a pleasure to acknowledge the friendly help of Professor Stephen G. Nichols of the Johns Hopkins University's Department of French, whose network of agents finally tracked down a copy of the film for me to screen.

[9]. Even a Frenchman would admit that there are more things between heaven and earth than are shelved in the Rue de Richelieu, but the British Library and the Library of Congress (see n. 7 above for one example) are similar foci of ideas of all-inclusiveness that swiftly dissolve under the application of even a moment's thought. (I find the same fixation on the Library of Congress as recently as the January 1994 issue of the relentlessly forward-looking Wired, in which Danny Hillis of Thinking Machines is quoted (p. 104) using the LC as a benchmark for available information on-line.

[10]. Hear the narrator's voice from the film for a moment: "In an instant, it [the new book in the collection] becomes part of a universal memory, abstract, indifferent, where all the books are equal among themselves, where they all enjoy together an attention as tenderly aloof as that of God for man. And here it is chosen, preferred, made indispensable to its reader, pulled from its galaxy."

[11]. Take any reasonable projection of the increase in output of "publication" and extend it over another -- what? -- thousand years? The cumulated quantity at the end of such a time defies the power of the imagination to conceive it.

[12]. This is the letter that tells the story of how seventy translators went into seventy separate cells and emerged months later with seventy identical versions of the text. It was widely retold in antiquity as a story that justified reliance on the Greek text to the exclusion of the Hebrew (and was thus particularly popular among Christians to whom Hebrew was in more ways than one a closed book).

[13]. ps.-Aristeas to Philocrates 9; the numbers for library holdings that the letter gives (200,000 in hand, with a goal of 500,000) are of little value, but give a sense of how close to totality a dreamer might think the library came.

I put the word "library" in quotation marks here cautiously but carefully. It is used too readily to apply to entities varying wildly in size and nature, and the common trait of being created and used by people who had similar, but entirely unrealistic, ideas about what they were about should not obscure the fact that the "book" was a different thing to ancients from what it is today (not a text for silent digestion, but a prompt-script for reading aloud: not a source of "information", but chiefly a repository for wisdom coded as poetry and narrative -- an ancient Dewey Decimal System would not have left "fiction" out of play, it would have placed it at the center of the collection.)

[14]. L. Canfora, The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World (Berkeley, 1989), is both a readable history of the Alexandrian library and at the same time an exemplification of its curious totemic hold on our culture's imagination. More accessible, perhaps is this general treatment of the Alexandrian library by Ellen Brudige of Tufts University.

[15]. L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars (Oxford, 3rd ed., 1991), is an excellent introduction to the ancient and medieval making and keeping of books. The "fall of the Roman empire" is a phrase generally avoided by working scholars today in favor of less pejorative (but, notably, still derivative) phrases like "late antiquity". Suffice it to say here that it was a period of great creative energy, for all that some highly visible institutions did not share in that energy.

[16]. See here my paper, "From St. Augustine to the NREN" (n. 1 above).

[17]. It is worth noting that the transition through which the written word now moves will be the first to take it from a primary storage material consisting of dried organic material (papyrus reeds, animal scans, cloth- or wood- based paper) to an inorganic substance (for the moment, silicon and magnetized metal).

[18]. Constantinople's Byzantine Empire kept the ancient Greek tradition alive until the Turks sacked the city in 1453. The revival of Greek letters in the west in the Renaissance was importantly assisted by the perilous conditions in which Greek scholars in the east found themselves: see D.J. Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars in Venice (Cambridge, Mass., 1962).

[19]. The relation between medieval "Latin" and the Romance languages has become a lively topic of discussion since the publication of R. Wright, Late Latin and Early Romance (Liverpool, 1982), which argues that from about the ninth century "Latin" was an artificial recreation of something that had in fact died out of everyday use. If true (and I think it is), that theory emphasizes more strongly than ever the way in which the western European tradition was a consciously Latin- centered movement. For the long survival of Latin at the center of the culture, well past the point at which our educational tradition concentrates exclusively on the vernaculars, see J.W. Binns, Intellectual culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: the Latin writings of the age (Leeds, 1990).

[20]. In the conventional literary histories, biased by Romantic expectations of authorial creativity and poetic form, this is dismissed as an age of abridgments, and to be sure abridgments have their weaknesses. But an age characterized by them is perhaps one that is discovering itself awash in information and is beginning to take a strong hand in organizing it and making it accessible, surely not a sign of intellectual decline.

[21]. I like to speak of Christianity, indeed, as the high-tech religion of late antiquity, for the way it used the written word from the outset to create a community extending across time and especially space, where traditional Greco-Roman religion was quintessentially local and particularist.

[22]. See J. O'Donnell, Cassiodorus (Berkeley 1979).

[23]. Here indeed, I would suggest, is the origin of the cataloguing schemes that privilege "non-fiction". See McKitterick on Carolingian library catalogues, quoted below at n. 30.

[24]. Cassiodorus was the first to employ the BC/AD reckoning, but it is really the British monk/historian, the Venerable Bede, who in the eighth century put the system into common use.

[25]. For example, in the late 390s, Augustine in north Africa had run afoul of church law enacted at the council of Nicea 70 years earlier by being ordained bishop while his predecessor was still alive, but he had the very good excuse that his church did not have a copy of the relevant decisions and so did not know what the law was.

[26]. In so doing, he followed the governmental practice of the same decades that produced an increasingly organized series of collections of secular law, culminating in the huge law-organizing and law-giving exercise of Justinian.

[27]. Was spontaneous liturgy still the norm as late as c. 400? The Spanish poet Prudentius in his poem-cycle about the martyrs (Prudentius, Peristephanon 10.18) so interprets Mt. 10.19, "take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak," as recommending spontaneity.

[28]. H-I. Marrou, 'Autour de la bibliothèque du pape Agapit', Mélanges de l'école Française à Rome 48(1931), 124- 69, describes the traces of a sixth-century papal collection at Rome.

[29]. See again my Cassiodorus and on Eugippius, the articles of M.M. Gorman, especially 'The Oldest Manuscripts of St. Augustine's De Genesi ad litteram', Revue Bénédictine 90(1980).

[30]. R. McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989), 165-210.

[31]. A case study is W. Milde, Der Bibliothekskatalog des Klosters Murbach aus dem 9. Jahrhundert. Ausgabe und Untersuchung von Beziehungen zu Cassiodors Institutiones (Heidelberg, 1968).

[32]. In this period, the "classics" were found in a library, if at all, well down the list, subjoined to the basic texts of Latin grammar they presumably exemplified. Professor Ralph Hexter of the University of Colorado has described to me a pattern he is studying where Christian Latin epic poetry held a place of prestige now usually forgotten until well after Carolingian times, until in a very short period the old classics suddenly reared up and took their place, leaving the Christian epics to fall into near total oblivion until a mild revival in recent scholarship took them up again.

[33]. See Reynolds and Wilson (n. 15 above); B. Stock, The Implications of Literacy (Princeton, 1982), M. Carruthers, The Book of Memory (Cambridge, 1989), R. and M. Rouse, Authentic Witnesses (South Bend, 1992), M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (2nd ed., Oxford, 1993), and R. McKitterick (n. 30 above).

[34]. Michael Giesecke, Der Buchdruck in der frühen Neuzeit: Eine historische Fallstudie (Darmstadt 1991) 175.

[35]. Quoted in A. Minnis and A.B. Scott, Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism c.1100 - c. 1375 (Oxford 1988) 269, where there is apt reference made to R. and M. Rouse, `The Verbal Concordance to the Scriptures', an article now reprinted in their Authentic Witnesses cited above. I have heard exactly similar fears expressed by scholars that hypertext links added to their own words will somehow alter and diminish the value of what they say.

[36]. In order of publication, the classic studies are L. Febvre and H.-J. Martin, The Coming of the Book (first in French in 1958, American ed., Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1976), M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (New York, 1962), E. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge, 1979), and M. Giesecke (n. 34 above).

[37]. See L. Jardine, Erasmus: Man of Letters (Princeton, 1993), for the way in which that assertion of continuity was deliberately contrived and managed.

[38]. The textbook idea of the "Renaissance" is not a simple thing, nor is it the only category that can reasonably be used to describe the period to which the name is usually given; for theoretical considerations, see H. Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (Cambridge, Mass., 1983). The "Battle of the Books" (so named after Jonathan Swift's influential satire on the quarrel: see now J.M. Levine, The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age [Ithaca, 1991]) comes from a time when serious doubts were raised about the validity and usefulness of maintaining the link to classical antiquity.

[39]. What we mean by a "comprehensive" collection of books, for example, is exactly dependent on who "we" are.

[40]. This is demonstrated by contemporary library studies that attempt to reduce overlapping acquisitions by a cooperative process. As soon as objective attempts are made to see just how large the overlap in current acquisitions really is, the resulting number turns out to be astonishingly low and the prospect for material savings far less than one might have imagined.

[41]. I like to imagine the study of American history a thousand years from now, when surely the period before about 1945 will seem vaguely pre-historic, known only from the written word and occasional primitive representations (apart from the 3-D holograph docudramas that will doubtless be produced!), and the introduction of visual and sound recording will give presidents and other historical figures from roughly Kennedy onwards a kind of intensified reality. The resemblance between this period and that in which writing was first introduced is not incidental: see Mott Greene, Natural Knowledge in Preclassical Antiquity (Baltimore, 1992), on "prehistory".

[42]. Michel Foucault famously asked "What is an author" in his inaugural lecture as Professor in the College de France (avail. in English in his Language, Counter-Memory, Practice [Ithaca, 1977]). Here as often elsewhere, contemporary developments in literary theory and allied human sciences parallel, predict, and occasionally mimic, developments in the application of technology with which the theoreticians are often themselves unfamiliar.

[43]. I say this even while noting that adding to the canon of dead authors is a recent fad that suggests that some of the intellectual implications of the changes of which I speak are beginning to be felt, to the detriment of the reputations of authors from Jane Austen to Margaret Mitchell.

[44]. There is a huge and growing literature arising from the contemporary debate over the place of a "canon" of authorized texts. The most salient feature of such debates is that they are no new thing under the sun, but rather their history is coterminous with that I have sketched here. From the early sixth century AD, for example, we have a list called the pseudo-Gelasian Decretum de libris recipiendis vel non recipiendis (Decretal on books to be accepted and books to be rejected), which outlines which books of Christian literature must be read, which may be read, and which should not be read. Exclusion again is an important, if controversial, function in the management of the virtual library of any period.

[45]. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York, 1964), 8, and often elsewhere.

[46]. For example, it was said by one critic that the defect of a printed book was that it resembled all the other copies of the same book, and so you could not check its errors against another copy, the way you could with uniquely individuated manuscripts. True enough, but that critic did not realize that in the print medium it would be possible to pay people simply to proofread, and proofread obsessively if it were a stock offering or legal brief in question, to prevent error in the first place and thus to assure a product of much higher accuracy than anything seen in manuscript culture.

[47]. We should also bear in mind that we may already be there in important respects. I could not now give a coherent account of my own working practices in which the transforming and pervasive effect of the computer did not take a central place. True, I still curl up at the end of the day with a traditional codex, but I am constantly surprised by how much of what I do has changed already; and I am an old-fashioned kind of scholar in a very traditional field. Who the new Jedi knights are and where they are and how long it will be before they are the norm, we only surmise on anecdotal evidence.

[48]. I had written this last line in anticipation of meeting Bruce Sterling at the ARL/AAUP symposium. A comedy ensued, when nobody had met the distinguished speaker and we were all creating a kind of composite sketch of what this figure would look like. On meeting this very presentable and indeed almost dapper and soft-spoken man, I think I should confine myself to suggesting here that he is perhaps best described as a "virtual" wild-eyed visionary cyber, etc.