Toward a new Alexandria

Published on openDemocracy, by Lisbet Rausing, June 26, 2010.

The guardians of learning can no longer allow the Library to be surrounded with barbed-wire fences. It is time for the academe to liberate scholarship

Imagine a new Library of Alexandria. Imagine an archive that contains all the natural and social sciences of the West—our source-critical, referenced, peer-reviewed data—as well as the cultural and literary heritage of the world’s civilizations, and many of the world’s most significant archives and specialist collections. Imagine that this library is electronic and in the public domain: sustainable, stable, linked, and searchable through universal semantic catalogue standards. Imagine that it has open source-ware, allowing legacy digital resources and new digital knowledge to be integrated in real time. Imagine that its Second Web capabilities allowed universal researches of the bibliome … // 

… Half a millennium ago, at the dawn of the age of mechanical reproduction, German townfolk were dazzled by the thought that, thanks to their new-fangled printing presses, God’s word might now be put in the hands of the laity. There would be no need for intermediaries. God’s word would speak not through the clergy, but to each soul, no matter how humble his station on earth. Of course, the intermediaries struck back—the Counter-Reformation was arguably just that, a rebellion of intermediaries. Indeed, Ireland retained a Catholic censorship until its belated modernity a few decades ago. But the technological rupture of the printing press was such that the disintermediation was inevitable over the longue durée. We became—and look closely at the word—Protestants.

Today, at the dawn of the age of electronic reproduction, the intermediaries are again striking back. The publishers are the most blatant and crude, of course. But academics are also intermediaries. And while they may not think of it this way, arguably they too are striking back. Then, as now, obstacles are imagined—and created. University libraries are closed shops, JSTOR remains blocked, theses are inaccessible, and academic monographs are available, if at all, only on paper and at prohibitive prices. For this sorry state of affairs, we should not only blame Hollywood and the music industry. The obstacles to a true and electronic Reformation are real, but perhaps also caused by the continuation of “business as usual,” perhaps ultimately founded in the mental difficult that older folk have imaginatively re-drawing work practices, as well as organizational and legal “silos.” Remember Henry Ford’s comment: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a better horse carriage.”

However, the research done in my field, the history of science, offers comfort in the morbid but accurate observation—ultimately traceable to Kuhnian theory—that “science marches ahead one funeral at a time.” Obstacles can delay, but not stop, a technological rupture of this magnitude. Excepting the odd Wykehamist or yeshiva boy, our children—always on, multi-tasking, mobile—will not engage with a body of scholarship their elders have incomprehensibly surrounded by barbed wire. But they will remain engaged in learning. The question is not whether there will be future scholars. It is how these future scholars will remember and integrate previous scholarship. And in pondering that, which means pondering our own scholarly legacy, it is worth remembering that “the generational war is the one war whose outcome is certain.” (full long text).

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