Can You Call It A Library If It Is All eBooks?
The World Public Library Blog Newsletter
Volume 1, Number 18
Thursday, July 14, 2011
by Michael S. Hart
Founder, Project Gutenberg
Inventor of eBooks
Can You Call It A Library If It Is All eBooks?
[Part of our ongoing series about eBooks and libraries]
Now that we are in the year recognized by the media as: "The Year of the eBook" the professional pundits are starting to ask questions.
Now that eBooks have been accepted as reality, the next question is whether collections of eBooks are libraries or whether they ought to be called something else.
So, let's go back and start with: "The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World". Nearly everyone can name The Alexandria Great Library-- but very few can name all seven, mostly because they're only looking for six more. . .it's not a long story.
Here are the highlights:
However you count them, The Library at Alexandria was a great wonder of the ancient world, without a doubt, but what they had there are not something that would be the kind of things we would find on library shelves today-- or even over the past 500 years and more. Nearly all of their items were scrolls, and certainly a copy in any modern language would not be available.
So, if we look back a much shorter period, say 50 years ago, we would see tens of thousands of home with a home library called "The Great Books of the Western World"-- brought to us by Britannica, and compiled by a renowned scholar named Mortimer Adler, who also created an index worthy of this collection, called "The Syntopicon."
Many, perhaps even most, scholars, educators and even a host of early home schoolers were familiar with this to some level, though not all agreed of course, on this or that translation as being the best available.
However, the point being made here is that this library [or at least "home library" of 150 or so items was some serious reading at a time when people were very much in a self improvement mode after World War Two, but that a great number of the titles involved were not originally what we would call "books," just as The Bible's "books"
were not originally what we would call "books," or most or all of the works from before the year 1000.
Yet we have no trouble referring to Alexandria, Toledo, or other locations before The Gutenberg Press as having "libraries" that were world renowned.
In fact, scholars of many earlier eras traveled a great distance to many such libraries in their studies.
Chaucer's "Oxford Scholar" was certainly a decent trip, if not farther, from his home library, and we must from the context presume he had visited other such libraries in his travels, as we read "The Canterbury Tales."
In fact, libraries of his day, and even centuries later would hardly recognize today's modern libraries at all, and they would be SHOCKED to see the books going out of the library doors, since books in those days had a cost as great as that of the average family farm!!!
One thing we CAN be sure of, is that libraries changed, and changed a great deal, over the years, and while the great ancient authors' names may be equally familiar to librarians new and old, both the physical forms and the languages in which they were read have changed greatly.
Our modern day history teachers do not emphasize enough just how much of our knowledge of ancient history came, oddly enough, though vast collections of translations-- long after the original works had passed into dust.
Thus a great deal of our knowledge of The Ancient Greek culture and literature, not to mention mathematics is a gift from those great libraries built when The Moors in Spain were perhaps the highest of world civilizations.
This is why so many of our terms in algebra, geometry & other items gleaned from this libraries are in Arabic-- and how we ended up with Arabic numerals after the many years of Roman numerals.
Algebra, itself, is an Arabic word, as is zenith, and a host of mathematical terminologies, including "zero."
Thus, we can call all of these information collections, throughout the years, decades, centuries, millennia and all of our written history, it is obvious that just one more change in form and format should not stretch terms any further than they have been stretched already.
A much farther stretch for most people is to realize we learned nearly all we know of The Ancient Greeks, and a lot of what we learned of The Ancient Romans was from a series of widely interspersed travels and translations.
Therefore, unless there is some huge movement by people in various powerful businesses, academia, etc., I think the term "library" will survive the translation to this new form, the "eBook."
After all, no one seems to worry that "music libraries" are different than "literary libraries," or that music, as it happened, changed to digital back in 1984.
It seems history tends to repeat its self. It is no wonder the new digital eBook format has adapted similarly, taking formatting characteristics from the ancient scrolls as well as the modern book. I guess it is only apropo so too are the new libraries.
By the way, the next issue of this Newsletter Blog will deal with the first United States lending library where a brand new "bookless library" has now opened nearby in Philadelphia, and it is still called a library:
"The Drexel Library Learning Terrace" is the name. . .!
And it is within walking distance of of the inventor of the first US lending library. . .who was this great man and what else did he invent?