Brian D. Sadie / Tuesday, 14 May 2013
This abridged version posted at
The Digital Public Library of America launched April 18th with the goal of linking America’s libraries, archives, and museums and making them freely available to everyone. This platform will enable new and transformative uses of our newly-digitized cultural heritage. From an historical standpoint and for preservation and accessibility it’s wonderful, similar to the idea of restoring films and preserving both newly-mastered film and digital copies.
Collecting and scanning all the world’s printed publications is good, not least because it could enable more students, teachers, scholars, and the public to see the change in the meaning of words they think they understand, the shifts in political and legal thought and practice, the development of hard scientific knowledge and the preservation of methods, practices, and tools no longer widely understood. Real democratic availability without restriction is a worthy goal, but it’s only part of the plan.
To help disseminate this store of knowledge and art we need librarians: they are essential guides to the world’s collected literature, books, art, and written knowledge. Truly great librarians have real understanding of multiple languages, cultures, and disciplines and are versed in the methods and notions of knowledge, history, and the ways people catalogue and refer to ideas and information. A great librarian not only can direct a patron almost immediately to precisely where they wish or need to be but can also provide additional, wonderful, and relevant information.
Librarians are sleuths, and not because they’re masters of the arcane: all that I’ve mentioned about libraries and librarians is rudimentarily practical to human society and endeavor. We should digitize the world’s written works but also insure that today’s children and young adults are truly literate. We should teach them the ways of thinking and what things really mean so that, regardless of how they choose to act or think or behave, they’ll at least know the what and maybe even why. The hope is that some of the next generations will know and care enough to continue the preservation and dissemination of knowledge and art and all the rest that is our history.
It is essential to maintain the stores of knowledge and ways of thinking that, in printed form, always, at some point, go out of print and cease to be available. Libraries exist to get and keep editions for reference and preservation. Digitizing the world’s works increases the need for a librarian’s understanding of cataloging, so we should make sure people know how to use libraries. Then the fullness and beauty of the digital project and the works it preserves can be better appreciated.