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

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 4, 2012

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

When one compares the ideas expressed in the writings of the prominent philosopher of the library, Jesse H. Shera, with the current-day reality of some libraries and, indeed, of much of modern society, one is struck by a tremendous contrast. In the magnificent piece, "The Quiet Stir of Thought", Shera provides a justification for the library which reaches the heights of metaphysics, mysticism, poetry, and metaphor. [2] Whatever the nominal political attachments of Jesse Shera  were, the spirit of this piece is strikingly "preservationist" almost in the manner of T. S. Eliot. The importance of tradition, of intellectual rigor, and of the pursuit of truth within the Library, constitutes the core of a possible argument for the Library. There is an almost aristocratic disdain for technology, the mechanical, the scientistic. Who can match the eloquence of Shera's stand:

In this volume the hero, Aquila, bears within himself the conflict of darkness and light that so intrigues Miss Sutcliff… When he fires the beacon of Rutupiae for the last time, "as a defiance against the dark",  he is carrying the Roman virtus into the next age…"To keep something burning, to carry the light as best we can into the darkness and the wind": that, good friends, is the apotheosis of librarianship; that is what librarianship is all about. [3]

One would do well to ask what constitutes "the darkness" in the modern-day world, where reason and science have apparently triumphed, yet modern societies are faced with problems of the soul and psyche seemingly far deeper than those which faced premodern societies.

In his essay, "What is Librarianship?" Shera makes clear his view that the library is under attack. Using the example of the fragmentation of philosophical thought in the modern world, he openly wonders if a similar future is not awaiting librarianship.

Now that the profession is confronted by a period of rapid change, both with respect to the demands made upon it and the invention of new mechanisms to meet these demands, librarians must come to terms with almost totally new vocational environment, or surrender to others the social responsibilities that they have cherished for generations. The once proud empire of philosophy lost by attrition its greatest domains. Scientists annexed the philosophy of science, historians the philosophy of history, mathematicians took over logic, aesthetics the philosophy of art, and psychology seceded. In a somewhat less spectacular, but no less real manner, librarianship is threatened… [4]


It may be noticed that a direct link is established here between technological change and the possibility of the "dismantling" of the field of librarianship, though not explicitly of physical libraries. The common threat to both the Library and the societies in which it operates may perhaps be subsumed under the category of "technology".

The essays of Pierce Butler, Louis Shore, Guy A. Marco, and of earlier theorists, often invoke ideas similar to those of Jesse Shera. [5] The coda of the collection, "The Premise of Meaning", by Archibald MacLeish, soars as high as the best of Shera:

No, it is not the library, I think, that has become ridiculous by standing there against the dark with its books in order on its shelves. On the contrary, the library, almost alone of the great monuments of civilization, stands taller than it ever did before. The city – our American city at least – decays. The nation loses its grandeur, becomes what we call a "power", a Pentagon, a store of missiles. The university is no longer always certain what it is. But the library remains: a silent and enduring affirmation that the great Reports still speak, and not alone but somehow all together – that whatever else is chance and accident, the human mind, that mystery, still seems to mean. [6]

It could be argued that it is precisely by understanding where "the loss of meaning" originates that anything could be done to turn back the malaise and anomie of modern societies.

The essay of Jose Ortega y Gasset, "The Mission of a Librarian", though first presented in 1935, already foresees the problems of the "information-explosion" in near-apocalyptic terms:

If each new generation continues to accumulate printed paper in the same proportion as the last few generations, the problem posed by the excess of books will become truly truly terrifying. The culture which has liberated man from the primitive forest now thrusts him anew into the midst of a forest of books no less inexhaustible and stifling. [7]

A particularly evocative image, doubtless drawn for the theories of Hegel and Spengler, is that of civilization turning in on itself. (An echo of the Master-Slave dialectic, which is itself based on the creator-creation or subject-object distinction.)

Economy, technology, all the facilities that man has invented, today besiege him and threaten to strangle him. The sciences which have grown so fabulously, multiplying and specializing themselves, surpass the capacities of acquisition which man possesses. They torture and oppress him like plagues of nature. Man is in danger of becoming the slave of his sciences. [8]

In this new situation of late modernity, the role of the librarian, according to Ortega y Gasset is to "give his attention to the book as a living function. He must become a policeman, master of the raging book."

The prescience of Ortega y Gasset, thirty or more years before the "computer revolution", is striking. The fact that he was speaking in a pre-television, pre-computer age does not seem to lessen the strength of his points. An argument might be made that the computer will help us to eventually overcome the "information explosion". But this seems unlikely. As information grows logarithmically in the current age, the systems – and indeed the necessary intellectual faculties – for organizing information lag far behind. Thus, "information overload" would seem to be a permanent condition or syndrome of hyper-technological society.

In terms of the hymns to the "new information society" and the plethora of "user-services" and "information materials" which some librarians are dreaming about, Ortega y Gasset sounds a clear note of warning.

Man cannot be too rich; if an excess of facilities and possibilities are offered for his choice, he comes to grief among them; and confounded with possibilities, he loses the sense of the necessary. [9]

This might indeed serve a suitable epitaph for late modern Western civilization.

It could be suggested that most librarians have never really considered what the new hyper-technological society might mean for them and their profession. In "The Quiet Stir of Thought", Shera quotes a colleague as saying:

This may sound old-fashioned, but an attractive room and wide-ranging collection of books, freely accessible, seems to me what a library is. [10]

Shera goes on to say:

In all of these statements, one finds implicit a picture of the library that is classical, conventional, conservative, and in many quarters today, thoroughly discredited. Yet the library, in a world that is growing increasingly raucous and cacophonous, is almost the last outpost of silence and the quiet stir of thought, even as it is, together with the university, the one surviving hope of intellectual freedom. [11]

Jesse Shera's noble pronouncements and the ideas behind them seem to belong to an age which passed long ago, especially when one considers the "quiet stir" of Sixties' campus protests – and the almost permanent revolution of incivility which has enfolded since then.

Indeed, looking at the passages quoted above, one might well wonder if the library is not, in its essence, a "traditional institution", which will not survive too well its collision with the "new information society". It would be truly ironic if the library became "well-organized" and conscious of its function as a result of the technological advances of the 19th century, only to be superseded or abolished by the further technological developments of the late 20th century.

To be continued. ESR

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

[2] Shera, pp. 167-183

[3] Shera, p. 182

[4] Shera in McCrimmon, pp. 170-171

[5] see McCrimmon throughout

[6] MacLeish in McCrimmon, p. 235

[7] Ortega y Gasset, p. 150

[8] Ibid., p. 147

[9] Ibid., p. 148

[10] Shera, p. 168

[11] Shera, p. 169

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


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