7.0176 Battle of the Books Lecture (1/695)

Fri, 10 Sep 1993 16:01:50 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 7, No. 0176. Friday, 10 Sep 1993.

Date: Fri, 10 Sep 93 17:07:24 +0100
From: Robin Alston <uczcroa@ucl.ac.uk>

I gave this lecture on February 16. This summer John Sutherland
contributed a review to the London Review of Books of the British
Library's Strategic Objectives for the Year 2000. This lecture
was mentioned and has been in subsequent contributions to the LRB
by correspondents. I have had so mnay requests for copies of this
lecture that I am making it available on the Internet. An
expanded version of it will be published later in the year.
Robin Alston
University College London
September 10, 1993

# # # # #


In preparing this lecture I decided to follow Montaigne's advice
and abstain from talking too seriously about serious matters, and
it occurred to me that Swift's little allegory might serve as a
convenient fiction for my purpose. For those who remember their
Swift it provides a shroud of ambiguity which seriousness needs
these days. It does not really matter how you interpret the
players in the quarrel (Temple, Wotton, Bentley, Swift and
Fontenelle) or even the implicit presence - off-stage as it were
- - of the Royal Society upon which so many hopes were pinned. Some
of the deliberations and experiments proposed in the
Philosophical Transactions were plainly ridiculous, but we can
understand these a little better if we remember that the founding
fathers were careful to arrange the inauguration of their Society
in conformity with the predictions of the astrologer Flamsteed, a
frequent contributor to its proceedings.

We do not know precisely the occasion for Swift's immortal mock-
heroic pamphlet, though it may well have been the publication in
1697 of Richard Bentley's single-sheet proposal for the
establishment of a properly managed Royal Library, a theme which
has its origin in another proposal - by John Dee to Queen Mary in
1556. The allegory draws its strength from a theme as old as
knowledge: the ordeal of ideas which evolve through all the
stages whereby darkness becomes light; a re-enactment of the
Greek story of the war between the gods and the giants. Reverence
for the ancients has waxed and waned at various times in the
history of Europe, and usually with quite different consequences.
Thus, the rediscovery of the "Master" Aristotle in the thirteenth
century led Aquinas to the conviction that Christianity and
Aristotle were in perfect harmony, and the dogmatic mind found
comfort in an intellectual apostle of the strictest sort. And so
the great architect of logic, dialectic, metaphysics and natural
science became the unquestioning hero of both Church and
University. But, just as these two institutions began to feel
secure, the Doctor Mirabilis Roger Bacon was busily reminding a
baffled Europe that there was more in the universe to discover
than there ever was hinted at in Aristotle. "It is most wretched
to be using what has been attained, and never look to that which
is to be attained." Especially, he added, when our knowledge of
the ancients is derived from corrupt and obscure translations. A
rebellion against scholasticism of another sort found expression
in his contemporary Dante's daring preference for Italian instead
of Latin.

It is tempting to see in Georgius Gemistus (referred to in his
time as Pletho) the source for the debate about the ancients and
the battles which ensued between the followers of Aristotle and
those of Plato in Florence at the court of the Medici in which
the "moderns", Ficino and Pico, were to play such a crucial role.

In spite of the passion for "truth" which characterised both men,
a real understanding of Plato had still not been achieved when
the sixteenth century dawned. Progress, as with the classicism of
the thirteenth century, was still a backward-looking hope. In
Northern Europe the "new age", which eventually dissipated itself
in religious controversy and a general optimism about the ways in
which a knowledge of the past could sustain hopes for a
progressive future, found its most persuasive expression in
Erasmus whose vision of the Republic of Letters and the exercise
of intelligence was to be thwarted by the Protestant revolution
in Germany led by Luther. The bloodbath which followed - and
which Erasmus had predicted - engulfed Europe in civilian discord
and frustrated the emancipation from uncritical dependence on the
ancients which had been the dream of the humanists.

For a new voice, arbitrating between the ancients and the
moderns, we must turn to Montaigne whose affection for the former
is based on nothing more intellectually challenging than pure
delight and a feeling of companionship with spirits as present
as they were indubitably past:

I have been bred up from infancy with these dead. I had knowledge
of the affairs of Rome long before I had any of those of my own
house; I knew the Capitol and its plan before I knew the Louvre;
and the Tiber before I knew the Seine. ... They are all dead; so
is my father as absolutely dead as they, and is removed as far
from me and life in eighteen years as they are in sixteen
hundred; whose memory, nevertheless, friendship and society, I do
not cease to hug and embrace with a perfect and lively union."

Montaigne's delight in, and admiration for, the ancients is
wholly without servitude. The end of all knowledge is quite
simply to better understand man: "the common and human model,
without miracle, without extravagance."

What would we give now for a voice like Montaigne's! As so many
times in the past the opposing armies are set to do battle, and
in the study and importance of books there are those who would
persuade us that the moderns have won; that paper will give way
to electronics; that librarianship as we have known it for a
hundred years is as dead as Aristotelian science; that the
library has become less a nursery of knowledge than a play-room
in which those with antiquarian obsessions indulge their
fantasies and must be transformed into electronic warehouses
invisibly connected to all other warehouses; that there can be no
real progress until every scrap of paper has been digitised and
rendered tractable to electronic manipulation and distribution
via the telecommunication networks being built in space. If this
were so - and I seriously doubt that it is - then our
intellectual future will be comprehensivly entrusted to
engineers. That may be a fine prospect for faculties of
engineering, and the makers of electronic devices on which the
librarian is increasingly dependent, but it might have serious
consequences for a balanced view of who we are, where we came
from, and where we are going.

Montaigne dismissed the physician writing about war as an
absurdity, just as he dismissed those who uncritically follow
others: "Who follows another, follows nothing, finds nothing, nay
is inquisitive after nothing." Without bothering to examine the
basis for our contemporary obsession with computers and the
interminable novelty of every new piece of software which
promises undreamt-of opportunities to perform a variety of tasks
simultaneously we have decided to reconstruct our libraries on a
new model. That model presupposes that the information which
libraries have traditionally supplied is somehow more meaningful

in electronic form, and therefore capable of being stored,
interrogated and transmitted to any part of the globe. Now, it
has to be admitted that some kinds of information undoubtedly
benefit from universal and near-instantaneous access: we would
not be able to book an airplane ticket in London for a journey
from Singapore to Djakarta if this were not so. But the half-life
of such information is trivially small and the evidence for the
transaction can be discarded after a period generally prescribed
by law. But the world's research libraries, archives and record
centres contain a vast amount of printed and manuscript
information the half-life of which we are unable to predict. And
while we hear a great deal today about multi-tasking and multi-
functional devices such as the digital copier, the research
library remains the only available model enabling the
simultaneous consultation of a wide variety of materials. It
seems to me an irony that would not have escaped Swift that at
precisely the point in time when scholarship has begun to accept
the principle of the unity of knowledge and the value of
interdisciplinary research we are bent upon its fragmentation.
The battle facing the books today has nothing to do with
arguments between Plato and Aristotle or Paganism and
Christianity: it has to do with the survival of the books

Of course it is possible to digitise and index the contents of
all the world's important libraries and archives. In the 1930s
Eugene Power demonstrated that it was possible to persuade
libraries that what they needed was microfilm and created that
juggernaut of unselective micropublishing University
Microfilms . The question we must answer is, who would benefit
from such a colossal enterprise? Commerce or knowledge? Are
libraries in the control of visionaries or are they in the
control of irresistible economic forces which we ignore at our
peril? That is not an easy question to answer.

We have escaped from the tyranny of the task-specific, and
therefore dimension-specific, devices associated with the
Industrial Revolution. The manufactory, with its dependence upon
labour to run the machines, has all but disappeared in the
developed countries: we have no taste today for servility and the
offensive consequences of having to do what machines controlled
by computers do better. And, as we all know, it is possible to
program computers to perform an amazing variety of tasks. It is,
without doubt, an approximation of the universal machine. But
there remain a host of socially necessary tasks which machines
cannot yet perform. One of those socially necessary tasks is
undoubtedly research: by which I mean a steady, discriminating
and intelligent assessment of such evidence as we have about
whatever it is that interests us. I have deliberately avoided the
word rational because it is quite possible that there are
non-rational explanations for some things, and while science has
both its limits - and its limitations - there seems to be no
limit to what the mind can propose or create. What it is that
nourishes this astounding ability has troubled every thinker for
thousands of years, and must have caused surprise even to
primitive man when he first discovered he could draw and make
weapons. But if we do not easily understand this phenomenon of
mind still less do we understand what it is that drives
curiosity. The search for truth, I suppose, is the answer
generally given; but that presupposes that there is such a thing
as truth. If it does exist, why have we failed to find it? Why is
it that every time we propose an answer to a question the answer
raises other questions we never even considered? Does truth lurk
in the books and manuscripts our libraries are filled with? Or
are we condemned to search forever for what does not exist? These
are questions of some weight.

In his remarkable little book The Limits of Science Sir Peter
Medawar tried to address what is essentially a metaphysical
question. He did so with an intellectual generosity that is as
rare today as anything I know. For Medawar, the universe consists
in evidence which can be subjected to principled analysis, and
evidence which can not be so subjected. He remained uncertain to
the end about how to deal with the latter, but of one thing he
was certain: that it is not possible to plan for either
progress or discovery. The great discoverers have always been
more embarassingly modest of their achievements than we would
wish, and Newton, you may remember, said:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I
seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and
diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a
prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay
all undiscovered before me.

Our contemporary love-affair with the universal engine
sometimes seems to me a misplaced enthusiasm for its marvellous
capabilities - witness the plethora of perfectly useless software
which has been developed to feed its inexhaustible appetite.
Musicians disagree on the number of truly original tunes which
can be identified: I wonder how many original programs have
been written for the microcomputer. Not more than a handful, I
suppose, and after fifteen years of painstaking effort attempting
to evaluate the intrinsic merits of hundreds of ingenious
solutions to a very small number of real problems I am left
with the depressing suspicion that my time might have been better
spent reading all those books I promised myself twenty years ago
I would one day read. Perhaps we can no more look at the computer
with detachment today than early man could look at the wheel and
the wonders it could be harnessed to perform. On more than one
occason Swift reminded his readers of Aesop's fly, perched upon
the hub of a chariot wheel, exclaiming "See what a dust I raise!"

>From the vantage point of today the quarrel between the Ancients
and the Moderns must be judged absurd. Eighteenth-century
thinkers might be understandably reluctant to adopt a belief in
the permanent values of the classics, but we, emancipated from
the past, can find comfort in the absolute power of science to
improve our lot, prevent the despoliation of the planet, cure
dread diseases and generally make our lives a little easier. In
part, so it does. But the discoveries which have contributed to
this have also had malign consequences: none more malign, I
think, than the notion that knowledge is amenable to mechanical
transference. Information without doubt, but knowledge
decidedly not. That, of course, is heresy on a grand scale, but I
would remind you that heresy is an ancient transgression in the
history of universities. It may even be one of the principal
reasons for having them.

It seems to me that the tireless computations which we have come
to expect of the device which so governs our lives is part of the
problem. The reduction of analogue information to digital form,
and the transformations which are then possible, is without doubt
a process as fascinating as anything in the history of
technology. Every generation of microprocessors promises greater
potential for handling prodigious quantities of data at ever-
increasing speed. So rapidly is this technology advancing that
not even the bravest dare predict what we shall have at the dawn
of the new millenium. For institutions independent of the past
and all its inconvenient clutter this may prove beneficial, but
for institutions like libraries, which have evolved at the mere
speed of man's curiosity, the instability of the technology poses

problems of extraordinary magnitude and complexity. This is
hardly helped by those who would propose that books and documents
(whether manuscript and printed) are just so much information.
Research libraries do, of course, possess items which have little
more than informational importance - rainfall tables for every
village in India in the nineteenth century or membership lists of
defunct societies. It requires a fairly generous interpretation
of what might one day be of use to a researcher to explain why
large research libraries possess so much historical ephemera; but
there is little room these days for generosity and curators may
have to reconsider the wisdom of acquiring, storing and
preserving books like Jon-Stephen Fink's Cluck! the true story
of chickens in the cinema (1981), or Fred Newman's Gurgle!
cluck! ping!: the complete guide to making noises (1985). These
tend to be the least used materials and common sense would
dictate that they be left firmly in their analogue state. The
more used materials, on the other hand, are precisely those which
will benefit least from transformation, because readers nearly
always wish to consult them in conjunction with other materials,
which may well be of the lesser-used kind. It may be useful to
provide those who still preach sermons with a compact and
searchable electronic version of the Bible, but to convert all
versions and editions of that venerable text would be a
stupendous waste of resources. A close examination of the
products currently available in electronic form might well
suggest to an unprejudiced mind that we have a wonderful solution
in search of problems.

This is also suggested, I believe, by the exaggerated manner in
which those newly converted to automation can be found promoting
its benefits. In his introduction to a book by Charles Dollar of
the National Archives in Washington on Archival Theory and
Information Technologies Oddo Bucci, Professor of Archive
Studies at the University of Macerata, writes:

This book pertains to the culture of the technological society.
By now, social life has come to gravitate with ever greater
intensity around the use of the new technologies now operating
over a broad spectrum of sectors. The use of such technologies
itself works to disseminate new mental patterns, to remould the
structure of language, to modify the very organization of the
social plexus, to promote the formation of new knowledge and, at
the same time, the emergence of equally new goals. The
economically advanced world is by now firmly yoked to the
technological sector, to the point where it tends to identify
itself with the latter and to assume its basic characteristics,
which may be summarized as the overcoming of spatial limitations,
the acceleration of time, and the increasingly widespread spirit
of logic and rationality.

There is less here than meets the eye. It is not at all clear to
me what he means by stating that the use of technologies can
remould the structure of language. This is tantamount to saying
that the transition from manual to electronic processing of data
can have as profound an effect on our conceptual grasp of the
universe as that which characterised the transition from oracy to
literacy. It is a claim which simply cannot be substantiated.
The second claim, that technology can promote the formation of
new knowledge is true, but only with the help of considerable
interpretive skills; skills which librarians must learn to
develop. As for technology contributing to the increasingly
widespread spirit of logic and rationality the 9 o'clock news
would seem to suggest otherwise. As a comment on a civilisation
rapidly going bankrupt, and insisting that the rest of the world
go bankrupt with us, I find that Dollar makes a great deal more
sense than Bucci, for he has given us some timely warnings about

the problems associated with electronic information.

One of these concerns the vulnerability of electronic information
to electronic misuse and sabotage. Books and documents are also
vulnerable, of course, which is why good conservation practice
today includes disaster planning. But, as more libraries
participate in projects like those at Seville to digitise the
Archives of the Indies, the principle of benign neglect of the
originals is likely to be an inevitable consequence, requiring
libraries and archives to adopt security procedures for their
electronic data no less rigorous than those in use by banks,
insurance companies and building societies. I have yet to read a
manual of librarianship or archive practice which addresses this

We hear a great deal today about the necessity to improve
organisational efficiency by means of networks. Networks can be
static - like our roads and railways - or dynamic, like the
international telecommunication systems which guarantee that
panic in Tokyo is immediately followed by panic in London, New
York and Paris. As agents for the instantaneous transmission of
information, whether important or trivial, they can have
consequences not necessarily beneficial, and their development
has been so rapid in the past ten years that we do not have as
yet a legal framework within which the validity of the
information they carry can be verified. In a Local Area Network,
for example, in which information flows downwards (from the
managers), upwards (from the drones), or sidewards (between the
managers or between the drones) the opportunities for deception
are limitless. Files can be modified or deleted and unless every
modification is logged and time-stamped in a tracing file there
is no way of determining how decisions come to be made. The
administrative paper which lands on my desk in an average week
amounts to the storage capacity of a floppy disc, and while it is
possible to tell at a glance from the notepaper or cover sheet
what can be safely entrusted to that round file-store - which is
the only preservative of mental health in a modern institution -
such methods of appraisal are impossible in an electronic
environment. Corporate networks are reporting symptoms of
electronic fatigue with prodigious quantities of data needing to
be purged to make room for future demands. Faced with the
possibility that such purging might remove some scrap of vital
information the units ( reticulati so to speak) have no choice
but to dump their files to a printing device which will produce
documents, in no particular order, which must then be appraised
and filed. What an essay Swift would have written on such

It would seem to be perfectly obvious that the existence of
electronic networks which enable us to discover the existence of
books, articles and manuscripts important to our research is a
positive benefit. These tend, with a few notable exceptions, to
be the work of the `Moderns', since virtually no major research
libraries have complete electronic records for their holdings of
the `Ancients'. For anyone bent on tracing the bibliographical
history of the Epistles of Phalaris - the occasion of Bentley's
celebrated Dissertation and also of Swift's allegory - the task
is as tiresome today as it would have been fifty years ago. We
have the British Library Catalogue on <MS>CD-ROM as well as
online, but the promised abundance of riches in Bodley's pre-1920
catalogue is still unfulfilled. We have <MS>ESTC, in due course
to widen its scope to include all printing up to 1700. And there
are numerous other databases in the making which scholars will be
able to consult in the future. But even with all the electronic
records available through <MS>JANET, and the networks for which
it is a gateway, the great mass of historical materials, printed

and manuscript, remain inaccessible to the computer. From the
viewpoint of someone who spends a great deal of time trying to
assist scholars in their search for sources at the British
Library the dream of Universal Bibliographical Control seems as
remote now as it was when it first became a declared objective of
all libraries twenty years ago. And that other grand objective -
Universal Availability of Publications - seems even more remote.
It is not that we do not have the technology to achieve these
admirable goals: it is rather that we do not have the resources
demanded by such ambitious projects. Nor, I fear, are we likely
to have them in the future. And the reason why this should be so
is due to the fact that the Sciences and most of the Social
Sciences - receiving the lion's share of research funding in
cultures dedicated to material progress - have little interest in
materials with a half-life of more than five years. For the
Humanities, the situation is quite different.

This is not an occasion on which to re-open the quarrel between
the Arts and the Sciences, but it has to be said that those
concerned with history, whether it be of poetry or medicine, are
poorly served by governments and universities. The trouble is
that such people never seem to come up with socially useful
conclusions. What useful purpose is served by disproving the
existence of Phalaris? Or that Athens could not have been
supplied with grain from the Black Sea because the Bosphorus
flows at an average of 5 knots and their best sailing ships could
only just manage that speed, so that while they could come down
they had no way of going up? Perhaps, the case that needs to be
made is to establish how much that passes for scientific research
produces socially useful conclusions. The great American
philosopher of mind, Charles Peirce, wrote: "the conclusions of
science make no pretense to being more than probable." That kind
of modesty is hard to find these days. All research, it has to be
said, represents a collective exploration of the probability
that anything can be understood.

Knowledge has, since the fifteenth century, been largely enabled
and expanded as a result of the invention of printing, and it is
to bibliography that generations have turned for an understanding
of what is known about any particular subject. That the fruits of
bibliographical endeavour (whether enumerative or analytical)
should be made available in electronic form as well as printed is
obvious enough, and the modern research library generally
provides readers with some sort of online access (not necessarily
free, by the way) to remote databases as well as to the
increasing number available on <MS>CD-ROM . For databases devoted
to periodical literature and scientific abstracts it does not
normally require great skill to find what one wants. Even so, the
sheer number of such databases has given rise in America to a new
type of information broker: the surfer. Surfers are specialists
in knowing which databases to interrogate in order to find
particular information, and surfing is a fast-growing industry.
They charge, of course; but if you want to know how many English
gardens have gnomes there is a surfer who can provide the answer
[8%]. As Pam Leslie, a high-earning surfer, explains:

To use a database efficiently, you need to use it every day. The
moment you plug into a database it starts costing you money, and
you can sit there for hours just pressing buttons and still not
have the answer unless you know what you are doing.

Really sophisticated surfing has existed for some time in the
highly competitive patent business. Information regarding garden
gnomes may have a certain commercial edge over that on Greeks and
the navigation of the Bosphorus, but patent surfing is very
serious business. For one thing, it is obvious that patent agents

go to considerable lengths to disguise the primary purpose of
patents, while the large multinational companies are perpetually
vigilant to detect ingenuity which they can put to good use.
Thus, companies monitor the activities of competitors in order to
discover the direction in which they are going, and this is done
by far more refined search algorithms than are possible in the
average bibliographical or citation database. On <MS>ORBIT , for
example, it is possible for an experienced searcher to circumvent
semantic gobbledegook and find quickly patents relevant to a
customer's interests. This activity has more in common with
genuine research than merely surfing through a multiplicity of
fairly straightforward databases, and is not unlike the problems
that have beset generations of readers in the British Museum
grappling with Panizzi's rules for cataloguing works of anonymous
or corporate authorship. Thus, it takes some knowledge of English
administrative history to predict that the catalogue of the
National Art Collection in the Victoria & Albert Museum is
entered under the Privy Council. As electronic databases grow in
number and complexity libraries will surely discover that readers
will demand more not fewer reference librarians with an
understanding of how traditional as well as modern practices
coexist in an electronic environment.

The temptation to transform research libraries into commercially
driven surfing is already in evidence and conforms politically to
the Friedman doctrine which holds that the notion of public
service is obsolete and that libraries and education must be
paid for by users or they will have to do without. This
principle, which has its origins in social Darwinism, may be all
very well in resource-rich countries like America in the 1960s
when Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, but as Jim
Traue, a distinguished New Zealand librarian has observed, it is
unworkable in resource-poor countries, and these constitute an
ever-growing majority.

The battle of the books is now not one in which disputes can be
arbitrated but a battle for survival. Their survival, and the
survival of the institutions we call libraries, will depend, as
always, on enlightened and imaginative librarians able to develop
within a hostile political environment a model which can adapt to
the evolving needs of research in all disciplines. Those needs
will, within a decade, include access to information in a wide
variety of databases, electronic archives of images and sounds,
as well as the cultural inheritance in print and manuscript, most
of which will, I am certain, remain in its present form for the
foreseeable future. One consequence of this is the self-evident
need for librarians in the future to develop both ancient and
modern skills. The notion that knowledge can prosper by creating
vast knowledge warehouses based on the hypermarket model - you
can buy it if you can find it - is sheer fantasy as well as being
intellectually suspect.

The problem with research - and this has persistently worried
those who profess to be concerned with its importance - is that
so much of what we now take for granted came about less through
design than accident: Roentgen's discovery of X-rays, Dausset's
discovery of <MS>HLA polymorphism in genetic tissue matching, to
name two such. The fact that much scientific discovery has
depended upon the rare combination of imagination and method is
regularly attested. Could <MS>DNA have been discovered by a
government plan? Crick and Watson thought not. Medawar certainly
rejected the idea that there exists a calculus for discovery.

Whatever it is that we study it seems to me that we are all in
search of some version of truth, whether about the functioning
of the universe we inhabit, our role in that universe, our

understanding of what preceded us, or the purpose of existence.
There can never be any profit in determining priorities in this
search. As Karl Popper put it:

The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical
principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are
no such principles while in fact the search for truth presupposes

We are perhaps too close to the fevered enthusiasm for all things
electronic to be able as yet to judge their real value, and I
suppose it would be churlish of me to observe that much of what
passes for information exchange between some of my American
colleagues is part of a new and elaborate game, indulged in with
excitement only because, at the moment, it is free. I suspect
that when navigating the electronic highways is subject to tolls
their enthusiasm is likely to diminish. There are already a
growing number of electronic archives being planned for major
writers, and the Chadwyck-Healey database of English Poetry has
recently been launched. Yet no-one seems to be addressing the
formidable problems which the free exchange of information
between networked institutions poses for copyright law, because
access provides the opportunity to commit piracy, and while most
libraries are willing to provide researchers with unique
materials on a private and fair use basis, they are likely to
take considerable interest in extension of that use to third
parties. For printed matter librarians may well take a relaxed
view, though publishers will not: for the potential threat to
their economic survival posed by the new technology is very real.
For manuscript, archive and non-book materials custodians are
more than likely to adopt a strictly capitalist position. But,
since policing the electronic highways is virtually impossible,
we may well see them trying to join the game. That, I think,
would be a great pity, for it runs counter to the social
functions which libraries are presumed to fulfil. It may well be
that refusing to participate in the cyberspace game is the only
hope for the survival of libraries as we know them.

My own involvement with computers goes back to 1956 when I
persuaded Jess Bessinger, the newly appointed Professor of
Anglo-Saxon at Toronto, that the university's <MS>UNIVAC could
be harnessed to produce a concordance to Anglo-Saxon poetry. I
imagine there are few here tonight who will understand the agony
which that reckless endeavour involved. It may have taken a
decade to get the job done, and it may not have been worth the
effort, but I well remember the problems created by having to
develop mark-up tagging for an inflected language like Anglo
Saxon and the need to persuade the boffins at Yorktown Heights
about the inadequacy of the <MS>ASCII character set for printing
the concordance. The problem with computers is that it is quite
impossible to constrain expectations. It is an axiom of good
marketing that expectations must only be satisfied in carefully
determined phases: by saving treats for the future you guarantee
the obsolescence of today's product and a future for your
company. Most of the current offerings in the microcomputer
industry (including Object Oriented Programming and Graphic User
Interfaces like Windows) were available at the Palo Alto
Research Center (sponsored by the Xerox Corporation) in the
1960s. The community of librarians in the 1970s was `hijacked' in
one of the most wonderful of conspiracies in the history of
librarianship. What have been the proven benefits?

Well, we undoubtedly have at our disposal today a vast body of
bibliographical records available for searching on major networks
like <MS>OCLC, RLIN and <MS>DIALOG in the United States,
<MS>UTLAS in Canada, <MS>PICA in Holland and <MS>BLAISE in the

United Kingdom. Such networks provide access to a variety of
databases (from a variety of sources) and they adopt different
protocols for searching. There are, in addition, databases of
every kind increasingly available on <MS>CD-ROM. But the very
diversity of record structures makes it increasingly difficult
for researchers to master the intricacies of developing search
arguments which will effectively eliminate the noise inevitably
generated by keyword or subject word searches. Surfing on
<MS>OCLC demands as much technical and intuitive skill as
surfing on a patent file. Any notion that automation provides
libraries with the opportunity to reduce the level of skilled
staff is wholly illusory.

The new administration in Washington is, as I speak, pressing the
Senate for approval to allocate huge sums of money (in the
hundreds of millions of dollars) for the creation of digital
libraries and the software to handle retrieval from truly
enormous electronic archives of whole-text data. Some of this
funding will undoubtedly be reserved for the space program and
<MS>NASA (deeply involved with prodigious quantities of earth
satellite data), but some of it will undoubtedly find its way
into education and research libraries. What no one seems to be
sure of is the hidden agenda behind this sudden interest in
digital text data storage. That it could well have to do with the
soaring costs of university staff and the cost-benefits of remote
networked teaching is not an unreasonable guess. This is
something which we will soon be facing in Britain: for when
<MS>SUPERJANET is in place with the capability to transmit
multimedia information anywhere there can be no doubt that it
will be seen as a device to reduce teaching staff while at the
same time increasing the number of students. Remote teaching,
supported by vast digital libraries, may be the only way forward,
but it does raise a number of crucial questions concerning the
re-use of copyright materials. The Higher Education Funding
Council, under its Teaching and Learning Technology Programme, is
currently supporting a number of development projects to explore
the uses of the new technology in creating interactive courseware
and its marketing potential. Such courseware must, it seems to
me, make use of library and archive materials. What is not at all
clear is how copyright owners are to be recompensed for the
commercial exploitation of their property. The selling-on of
printed, manuscript and audio-visual materials has implications
for libraries, archives, publishers, authors and literary agents.
Central to the problem is the consortium strategy, increasingly
being adopted by libraries and universities, since it seeks to
undermine the familiar concept of the site licence . Unless we
are prepared to face anarchy these implications must be

There is a sense in which the new technology, particularly that
associated with digital scanning of printed and manuscript
documents, shows signs of encouraging anti-intellectual
attitudes. This is what I call the dustbin approach, which
seeks to digitise every document associated with a writer, artist
or thinker, deposit them in an electronic archive and, with the
modest help provided by hypermedia techniques, abdicate
responsibility for establishing the relationship between them to
the user, be they scholars (who can be presumed to possess some
fundamental editing skills), or students (who are presumably in
search of such skills). For the scholar, such abdication
represents a form of indemnity against criticism. For the
student, such an enterprise must represent no more than a
bewildering aggregation of uninterpreted data. That the
possibility exists for approaching the problems presented by
texts and their transmission in this manner does not necessarily
imply its suitability. Experience suggests that progress in our

understanding of man and mind is unlikely to be assisted by
information overload.

The battle for the books has just begun and the contest raises
questions which the time available does not permit me to address
here in any other than a premonitory manner. This is, after all,
an occasion on which it is traditionally preferable to avoid
over-seriousness. Like all of us who find ourselves in
administrative positions I am conscious that life today provides
so little time to `sit and think'; and I thought that just a hint
of heresy, amiably put I hope, would not be amiss. So I leave you
with Macaulay's verdict on Dryden - it could provide an apt
epitaph for many a librarian, past, present and future:

His imagination resembled the wings of an ostrich. It enabled him
to run, though not to soar.

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