NOTE: I'm taking next week off because of several urgent deadlines.
SOME NOTES ON BOOKS: THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW
Stewart Brand. The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility. Basic Books, 1999. paper edition, $14.00. 0-465-00780-5. Reviewed by Marylaine Block
This may be the most delayed book review ever, but I just now got around to reading this book, and I think you will find it as fascinating as I did.
The author, Stewart Brand, is one of a stellar collection of thinkers and doers who have founded the Long Now Foundation, an organization convinced that "Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span" that threatens our planet. [You can read more about it at its web site, http://www.longnow.org/.]
Besides Brand, who created The Whole Earth Catalog and co-founded The Well, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the futurist think tank Global Business Network, the co-founders include: Daniel Hillis, the inventor and computer designer who came up with the idea of parallel computing; the musician and producer Brian Eno; Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired; Esther Dyson, publisher of the tech-industry newsletter, Release 1.0; Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus, the Open Source Applications Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Douglas Carlston, designer of computer games and educational software; Peter Schwartz, the president of Global Business Network; and Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future.
Convinced that short-term thinking breeds irresponsibility, they felt that humanity needed a powerful symbol to force people to remember their responsibility to future generations, and to the planet itself. What they came up with is a clock that ticks away not minutes and hours, but millennia, a ten thousand year clock. Part of the book deals with the planning of the clock: how do you construct something that will physically endure for that period of time, and whose workings will be intelligible even if civilization is swept away in a new dark age, and all our written languages become incomprehensible?
Another element of Long Now is the Rosetta Project, "a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to develop a contemporary version of the historic Rosetta Stone." An archive of over 1,000 languages will be preserved in three different media formats, in hopes that at least one of them will survive: a micro-etched nickel disk with a 2,000 year life expectancy; a single volume monumental reference book; and an online archive. [See the project description at http://www.rosettaproject.org/live.]
But the project that really grabs me is the Ten Thousand Year Library -- an archive of the hard-won knowledge and wisdom gained through thousands of years of human mistakes and recoveries, ideas and inventions. Such a library might serve the same function as the monasteries after the fall of Rome, preserving knowledge until societies realize they need it again.
What should be in that library? Now there's a ripe topic for discussion! We wouldn't even necessarily restrict ourselves to words and images -- perhaps we could serve the future by preserving seeds, along with texts explaining the rudiments of agriculture. In fact, texts and demonstrations showing how to do all kinds of important functions which people might lose the knack for doing over the next ten thousand years. Canning. Measuring and calculating. Building bridges. Making candles. Geometry. Spinning and weaving.
What about the databases that have taken hundreds of years to compile -- census data, weather records, genetic profiles of plants and animals, mathematical tables and formulas, and such? Such data might enable those distant future generations to not only understand something of the world we lived in, but predict and control some aspects of their own.
There's a lot of appeal in Brand's notion of a personalized I Told You So service, where people can register their predictions and set a wake-up date for the prediction to be revealed as true or mistaken. (He tells the story of a real-life wake-up call: Sweden has a magnificent old-growth oak forest, which everybody believed was just a natural part of the environment until the Swedish navy received a letter from the Forestry Department in 1980 reporting that its ship lumber was ready. Knowing that it takes 150 years for oaks to mature, the Swedish government in 1829 had ordered two thousand trees planted.)
He also suggests a Responsibility Record, where parties to policy debates and historic decisions could file their reasoning and evidence along with the date on which they would like the records to be "waked up" for review. Brand wonders if knowing that such a record is being kept for such long-term analysis might encourage politicians to consider more than just immediate political gains in their decisionmaking.
But the ten thousand year library is not just for future generations. Its other function -- perhaps one that might affect whether there will BE future generations ten thousand years from now -- is to remind people of the importance of taking the long view. Part of that might come simply from beginning a discussion about what we think those future generations might need, and what we want them to know about us.
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Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein. Better Together: Restoring the American Community. Simon & Schuster, 2003. 0-7432-3546-0. $26.95.
In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam documented the decline of community in America. One of the most talked about books in the past fifty years, it started a national discussion. It was clear that many people deeply wanted to feel both the sense of being part of a caring community, and the power that comes from working together to create change. This book is an antidote for the state of depression he left many of us in. In here, Putnam and Feldstein tell the stories of people who have succeeded in rebuilding community, or even creating it for the first time, in some of the most unpromising places.
The part that will be of immediate interest to librarians is chapter two: "Branch Libraries: The Heartbeat of the Community." The bulk of the chapter is devoted to Chicago's newly built near North branch, which serves both the residents of Cabrini Green and the residents in the lavish Gold Coast apartments along the shore of Lake Michigan.
The Gold Coast residents had campaigned for a branch library, but they were decidedly nervous about sharing it with Cabrini Green. They feared gang members and drunks, and worried about their personal safety.
But still, this was a library. Its patina of respectability and middle class virtue lent reassurance, so the Gold Coasters began to come. They even began to mix with the Cabrini people in cultural programs and book discussions, especially when Chicago adopted To Kill a Mockingbird for its One City, One Book program. Some Gold Coast residents began to tutor the children of Cabrini Green.
The residents of Cabrini Green had some barriers to overcome as well. Many of them had never had a library card, and some had never even visited a library. But the simple fact that the city was willing to invest a large amount of money in building a library to serve them made them feel, perhaps for the first time, that their city valued them. Librarians who were absolutely committed to serving their needs also drew them to the library, as did programs that gave them a chance to improve their lives by getting their GEDs and learning job skills like writing resumes. By providing concrete ways for getting from where they were to where they wanted to be, the library gave hope to the residents of Cabrini Green, and belief in their own abilities.
As time and experience showed that these two very different sets of people could mingle peacefully in the library, people began to decide they could safely invest money in the neighborhood. Small businesses began to take root there and new housing was built. The city government also invested more money, creating a park and building a new high school and a police station. Like I keep telling you, libraries and other public services create economic value, and we need to keep explaining that to our mayors and city councils.
But the greater benefit is that libraries bring people together across all the normal divides in our society. One theme that runs throughout the book is that once people work together, once they listen to each other's stories, they become real to each other. It's hard for them to retain old fears and prejudices. When a city has broken apart into mutually suspicious clans and fiefdoms, libraries can be the social glue that puts the pieces back together.
Which may be why, for many of us, librarianship is not just a profession. It's a calling.
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The problem everyone has is that you never know what will be treasured later. When we look at old magazines, the ads are far more fascinating and informative than the articles. The U.S. Weather Service receives considerable income from selling old weather reports. To whom? To lawyers who want to know if it was raining on the night in question.
Stewart Brand. The Clock of the Long Now
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