IDEAS TALKING TO EACH OTHER
by Marylaine Block
I'm not sure why our profession seized so firmly on "information" as our reason for existing. Not that information isn't valuable, but it is, after all, at the bottom end of the intellectual spectrum that proceeds from information to knowledge to wisdom.
The difference between these categories, it seems to me, has to do with context and atomization. What books and journal articles are all about is context-dependent argument: take a topic, explore it at length, advance a thesis, gather or produce the evidence to defend it. Whether an argument wins adherents over time has much to do with the clarity and cogency of the writer's mind, the quality of the writing, and the strength of the evidence, and these are not separable commodities. You can abstract Garrett Hardin's classic essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," or quote a paragraph from it, but the abstract and the quote will not change our fundamental understanding of the world as the essay did. Context is everything.
Libraries, with their mountains of books and journals, are the prime resource for contextual wisdom, moreso by far than the internet, which hasn't been collecting texts anywhere near as long, and which is limited by copyright in what it can legally offer free of charge.
Information is composed of the individual atoms that constitute the contextual whole. Masters of context though we are, librarians have been in the business of atomizing texts ever since Antonio Panizzi cataloged the books in the British Museum. What cataloging and indexing do, after all, is extract topics from their context, link them to related items, and allow people to explore the topic apart from its original contexts.
Catalogs and indexes allow ideas to talk to each other. They let us compare authors with themselves, noting development or contradictions in their thinking, and let us compare their thoughts with those of others, and with newly discovered evidence that confirms or refutes their thoughts.
The act of cataloging has a contextualizing effect by placing an author's work in a particular intellectual milieu. It puts different perspectives on a topic beside each other, inviting people to a fully rounded exploration of it. You can start with generalities, go on to the history of the subject, its philosophy, psychological aspects, technology, law, social impact, etc. And then you have the the most interesting part of the cataloging system, the cracks between the categories, the neither-fish-nor-fowl-but-partly-both where so much exploration and creativity takes place -- sociobiology, behavioral genetics, evolutionary ethics, and the like.
Because of keyword searching, the internet may well be the best place ever created for letting atoms of information talk to each other, combine and recombine in millions of configurations. Because of the inherent restlessness promoted by the click, and because reading text on screen for any length of time is so hard on the eyes, it may be one of the worst environments for extended thought and discourse.
Because libraries are so rich in ideas elaborated at length, they are the best places ever created for letting ideas talk to each other. My question is, can librarians cultivate this actively, by design rather than simply through our collections? How might we help people hear the conversations our collections are having with each other?
One way is through our web pages. If we put together pages on hot issues, we could make a point of looking for a wide variety of perspectives on each topic. Let's go beyond pros and cons, and point to essays and books by theologians, lawyers, parents, doctors, feminists, scientists, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, sociologists, historians. Let's also point to relevant art and movies and plays and music. We can do the same sort of thing in physical form in our exhibits, selecting material from all parts of our collections -- books, CDs, videos, magazines, archives, government documents, children's literature -- and putting them where they can talk to each other.
We could perform a similar service for groups using our meeting rooms. We can find out their interests, and prepare lists of relevant books, magazines, databases, videos, and other resources, at our own library, and at local museums and other agencies.
And we could do it through our own programming. We can host our own issues discussions, and invite people with different knowledge and perspectives to talk about a topic of common interest. My college hosted one such event at the beginning of the Gulf War, where a theology professor talked about the long shadow of the Crusades, a history professor explained some of the history behind the conflict, a professor who was also a member of Amnesty International discussed the case for peaceful resolution, and a faculty member from the middle east talked about how America is perceived by the Arab world. The audience emerged with a much clearer understanding of the challenges the war would present.
Perhaps some California libraries conducted similar discussions during the recall election; certainly several libraries created something comparable on their web sites, notably the library of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California http://www.igs.berkeley.edu/library/htRecall2003.html, and the ever-reliable Librarians Index to the Internet, http://lii.org/search/recall.
We could use our coffee shops as the base for our own Socrates Cafe, where "communities of philosophical inquiry" can meet "to become more autonomous thinkers and doers and more expert questioners and listeners." [See for more about this concept] We could invite library users to suggest topics for discussion and moderate the discussions, while we supported them by displaying in the cafe relevant checkout-able library materials.
Our world is not lacking in information these days, but it is decidedly short on places where people can reflect together on the meaning and usefulness of that information -- a good first step toward converting information into wisdom. What's needed, I think, is an infrastructure for the cultivation of thought and the generation of new ideas.
And that, my friends, sounds to me like a library.
* * * * *
I can hear the library humming in the night,
a choir of authors murmuring inside their books
along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,
Giovani Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low gigantic chord of language.
Billy Collins. "Books." The Apple That Astonished Paris, 1988.
* * *
You are welcome to copy and forward any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2004.
[Publishers may license the content for a reasonable fee.]
Please do NOT copy and post my articles to your own web sites, however. Instead, please copy a brief excerpt and link to my site for the remainder of the article.