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The library and modern society in the 1980s – and beyond: Responses to mass media, mass society, and technology (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted May 28, 2012

(Original drafts of this essay go back to November 1985 – author's note.)

The purpose of this essay is to sketch out certain key issues which the library and librarians will be facing in the immediate future, to describe possible approaches to those issues, and to tentatively suggest the directions in which the institution of the library should proceed in regard to these matters.

The main aim of this paper is to carry out a forthright description of the society or environment in which libraries operate today, focussing on those aspects which bear upon libraries and their future. More specific issues such as censorship and intellectual freedom (in the context of the library) will be examined in order to yield further insights into the nature of the library and of modern society. But it is the impact of technology and of a hyper-technological society on the library (in a higher, not specific sense), that will be the focus of the analysis.

It may be noticed that in the above statement, "the library" is used as a rather symbolic term, which may elicit a wide variety of feelings and ideas in the mind of the reader. This term offers a convenient shorthand to describe a totality composed of individual libraries, schools of library science, professional librarians, library associations, technical and auxiliary services, and library philosophy and theory. It could be argued that library philosophy and/or theory is the vital element which gives direction to "the library" as a whole, and which will determine whatever responses this institution will take towards various phenomena of modern society. It should also be noted that the attitudes and responses of modern society as a whole to the library, both on the level of power-elites and structures, as well as on the level of a more nebulous "public opinion", will have a critical effect on the future of the library and on the formulation of philosophy and theory within the library.

Reading the above passage, a reader might think that the author has neglected an important part of the library scene today, that is, information science, information-networks, the impact of the computer, etc. This is in fact a question of the library's relationship to technology, which is one of the main foci of the paper.

A more cynical person might also argue that library philosophy and/or theory is irrelevant to the practical existence and operation of libraries. In fact, the use of the term "the library" might be criticized for making a broad assumption about current-day realities that cannot be substantiated. But if the first criticism is accepted, it means that librarians will move into the twenty-first century with no idea of what to expect and what to do. It means that librarians will have no cogent way of defending their interests in modern society. If, in the second case, a person denies the concept of the Library as greater than the sum of all its parts, it seems that the various functions associated with the work of librarians are discrete entities with a purely accidental relationship. This may mean that when another grouping offers a type of service similar to those of a library, it will have an almost automatic right of superseding that library service.

It could be argued that without some underlying idea or concept of the Library (which library philosophy should elucidate), the work of individuals and individual libraries becomes virtually meaningless. The multiplicity of library and library-associated activities is an empirical fact, the question being, what do these various activities have in common? The wide disparity of these library activities itself suggests that the real unifying principle can be the Final End they aim for, variously called the Mission or Goal or Purpose in the literature. [1]

In fact, the use of the term "the Library", which suggests an institutional totality, is the metaphorical kernel upon which the whole essay is based. One might notice that term is similar to other terms which express other modes of totality, for example, the Church, the State, the Academy, the First Estate, and so forth. The implicit suggestion is that the Library is an institution of society, perhaps even a so-called "traditional institution", with all that implies for it in a modern, hyper-technological society, which tends to attenuate all such totalities.

The impact of technological society on the library, for good or ill, is so dramatic, that this can be seen as the primary issue facing all persons in this institution today. It could be argued that the refusal to properly see the implications of technology will lead to disaster for the Library, and probably for those societies as well. The ideas advanced below are based not only on library philosophy and theory, but also on a broader reading of philosophy and of studies of modern culture.

It is the author's contention that there exist a series of deep-level tensions between various aspects of the library institution and the modern society in which it operates. One need not accept the notion of a Hegelian dialectic to know that contradictions may eventually be "resolved" – and not always in a painless way. One possible "resolution" would be the elimination of the traditional form of the library, and its possible replacement by some high-tech "information-bank" arrangement. Might it be possible that the end of the physical book or of the physical library would mean the end of the library as an institution?

In fact, a hyper-technological society might not perceive the need for attempting to preserve the so-called "dead weight of the past" – especially when it is perceived that this needlessly consumes vast amounts of economic resources, or continues to give intellectual aid and comfort to various premodern notions that are currently perceived as retrograde or odious. Libraries and their old books might indeed be perceived by some as an obstacle to a gleaming shiny future of perfect liberation. Thus, a core function, the archival function, of the library might possibly disappear.

In terms of the so-called "information revolution", one could do well to ask: who "makes" or controls "information"; if information is equivalent to knowledge or wisdom; and whether the paralysis of information overload will in fact contribute to the decline of the advanced societies. One could indeed question whether the "information" focus of libraries is entirely helpful. The Library might find that it is, in fact, a finely carved Baroque galleon, riding the crest of the so-called "Third Wave", with all sails flying, towards a rather nasty shipwreck.

To be continued. ESR

Notes (rendered continuously) (refer to later bibliography for full titles):

[1] see the "Plea for a Philosophy of Librarianship" in McCrimmon

Mark Wegierski holds (among other academic degrees) a Master of Library Science.






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