Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A glut. A library. A flood. A review.

I've started reading again.

I try to put in a chapter before bed and it's done wonders, not only for all the good things associated with what learning news things bring, but doing so settles my monkey-mind down so that I've been sleeping better.

I read three related books in succession: one about the history of categorization, one about the history of libraries and the last about the history of information.

While reading these particular books in quick succession will no doubt mess up my ability to recall which particular book contained which particular antidote, the upside is that I've had the opportunity to notice where they contradict each other and where they tell the same story but from different perspectives.
The first categories may have emerged as outward expressions of existing social relationships: an attempt to make visible otherwise invisible relationships like “parent,” “sibling,” or higher-level abstractions like “family.” As Hobart and Schiffman write, “Genealogy provides the ideal classificatory tool, for it narrates a sequence of actions. It thus sustains the tradition while, at the same time, subjecting it to a hierarchical ordering that clarifies the nature of various figures. When gods are considered, genealogy becomes a means of understanding the cosmos … when mortals are considered, it becomes an encyclopedic framework for historical and geographical as well as social information.”9
Highlighted by Mita in Glut

Or as a more eloquent writer like James Gleick puts it:
For the Yaunde, the elephant is always “the great awkward one.”♦ The resemblance to Homeric formulas—not merely Zeus, but Zeus the cloud-gatherer; not just the sea, but the wine-dark sea—is no accident. In an oral culture, inspiration has to serve clarity and memory first. The Muses are the daughters of Mnemosyne.
Highlighted by Mita in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

Glut (a horribly named book; a book about food is not called Stomach Pangs) - is the weakest in terms of scholarship, but just like the work of Howard Bloom which he cites frequently in the early chapters, it is still very interesting...
We do not have to accept Bloom’s theory as hard science, however, to appreciate it as a metaphor. As Alfred North Whitehead put it, “It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. But of course a true theory is more apt to be interesting than a false one.”
Highlighted by Mita in Glut

Information: A History, A Theory, a Flood is a drier read, largely because it is a history of information that has nothing to do with meaning. As such, there is scarce mention of libraries in Gleick's book. For that, you will have to read Mathew Battle's work. Be warned: Library: An unquiet history mostly reads as a history of the destruction of libraries over the course of civilization. It's hard not to conclude the cost of centralizing texts in one space is that you've created a single point of failure. It is just a matter of time before that price is paid; libraries fall with the empires that built them.

But I recommend the book just for it's fifth chapter "Books for all" alone. It is the best encapsulation I've read of the inherent conflicts within the profession of librarianship. I would re-type it in it's entirety if I could. This excerpt will have to do instead:

These images of the librarian bring to mind Prometheus, the Titan who presented mankind with the gift of fire. Two things are worth remembering about Prometheus: first, that he is moved by one emotion, pity, and his gift ultimately inspires another emotion, hubris, in the hearts of human beings. The tragic flaws of the Promethean impulse, pity and hubris, are the emotional poles of the librarian in the nineteenth century as well: pity for the low station of the reader, and hubris for the possibilities the library offers for the reformation of culture and society. The second thing to remember about the myth is the punishment of Prometheus. For his transgression against the power of the gods, Zeus chains the Titan to a wave-battered rock by the sea and sends down vultures to eat his immortal liver forever.
Highlighted by Mita in Library: An Unquiet History

Actually there's another passage I think I'd like to mention. Chapter five also contains a reading of the history of the first public libraries that I haven't read elsewhere: while the radical Chartists did much to start the public library movement through the creation of  reading rooms that were accessible to the working classes, it was actually the efforts of capitalist utilitarians who brought about the first public libraries paid by the state.
When the Manchester Public Library opened in 1852, it occupied a former Chartist hall, and speakers at the opening ceremony couched their comments in the language of class war and reconciliation. The library promoter Joseph Brotherton hoped that all classes “would learn how necessary they were to each other—how labour and capital were bound together by a link, and how the interests of all classes, rich and poor, were intertwined, like the ivy and the oak.” No less a light than Charles Dickens, who spoke as well, was confident that libraries would teach “that capital and labour are not opposed, but mutually dependant and mutually supporting.”
Highlighted by Mita in Library: An Unquiet History

While this particular history is fascinating in it's own right, I find it especially useful in understanding the current position of the public library in our society. For example, I think it helps me understand why hackerspaces in libraries are being so well received.

Like Chartist reading rooms, the original hackerspaces began in Europe and were established by anti-capitalist "radicals" (I'm still waiting for Fiacre to write the article that I need to cite here). In North America, the hackerspace or Maker Culture movement is much less grounded in politics, although it does have it's own manifesto. One of the reasons why I think the partnership of Public Libraries and Hackerspaces have been so well-received is that hackerspaces are now being re-cast as technology/business incubators. It's not exactly history repeating itself, but it does sound like a rhyme to me.

Actually, I'm not too worried about getting all the stories from these three books mixed up. I've got them all, indexed and searchable on my Kindle DX. I've got them backed up in my Calibre library, and I've got my favourite quotes on Amazon and in Readmill.

And I have these words here. Stories get stronger with their re-telling.

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