Sunday, May 18, 2008

On libraries: "the narrower path"

I've been on a tour lately. Not as a tour guide, or a tourist, but more the driver and traveling companion. My daughter has dedicated much time and effort this school year to a project for National History Day. In a quest for primary and secondary sources to illuminate her topic, she and I have traveled from library to library and archive to archive. It has been a fascinating journey. Watching her project take her from an initial interest in the topic, to a quest for deeper knowledge, to a well-rounded understanding of her chosen period in history has been extremely rewarding.

Some of the best memories that I cherish from this year are moments when I was sitting nearby in a library and she pulled out a dusty old book or an archived letter that had just the information that she was looking for - a treasure!

Having helped guide her to sources using the internet and then visiting so many different libraries and archives with her this year, I have a renewed appreciation for the vast repositories of knowledge cared for by librarians and archivists throughout the world.

After recently being introduced to Bookeye for the first time, it was with interest that I read Anthony Grafton's November 2007 article on The New Yorker website entitled Future Reading: Digitization and its discontents. As Grafton states:
The computer and the Internet have transformed reading more dramatically than any technology since the printing press...
He goes on to give a brief history of the written word, concluding with the relatively recent efforts to microfilm the world's written materials, and current attempts to digitize them and provide access to them via the internet. Grafton discusses the goals and status of Google Book Search and Google Library Project and similar projects by Microsoft and Amazon, including a look at copyright issues. Grafton makes the point that digitization of the world's books is focusing on materials from western nations, leaving the poorest societies to remain poor in more ways than one. As Grafton states:
Poverty, in other words, is embodied in lack of print as well as in lack of food.
The conclusion of his interesting article on the state of the written (and on-screen) word is that no matter the incredible changes occuring before our eyes with regard to digital access to materials, libraries are here to stay. Grafton makes the point that most researchers begin their information search on the internet, and that "no one should avoid the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen." However, he concludes that "the narrow path still the knowledge embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books."

I whole-heartedly agree. I have found this to be true in my own research and this year I enjoyed watching my daughter's appreciation for learning unfold further through the discovery of treasures in the libraries and archives that she was privileged to visit. We both know the value of the internet and its many digitized sources, but will always remember those special moments in libraries and archives where written treasures awaited us. And I can assure you, we'll both be returning for future treasure hunts for many years to come.

Image of the vintage New York Public Library postcard courtesy of USGenWeb's Penny Postcards website.

Thanks to Cynthia Chaldekas of the New York Public Library blog for suggesting Anthony Grafton's article.


  1. The header of your blog is just gorgeous. I was instantly drawn in. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Isn't it great to share our passion of history with our children. My oldest boy has a great interest in history like his mother. He's only 10 now, but I look forward to sharing this passion with him much more as he get's older. Thanks for sharing your experience with your daughter.

  3. I love that you quoting Grafton's comment about Poverty. And I couldn't agree more about the sentiments expressed. The Internet is lovely, wonderful and has opened a lot of doors, but there is nothing more thrilling then touching a 100 year old document or finding a micro filmed court deposition that makes a family mystery suddenly make sense. I have loved libraries since my mother first took me by the hand, and led me into our local library before I even started school. All those books, and that lovely old book smell - I can't imagine anything better. This was a terrific post!


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