Living and Dying with "Information": Comments on the Report 'Buildings, Books, and Bytes.' (Libraries in the Computer Age) (Reprinted from Library Trends, Summer 1997)

Article excerpt

The Benton Report is considered in light of its aims and pronouncements. Its analysis of the present situation of libraries is shallow and unconvincing. There is a hidden agenda of imposing `virtual libraries' on a public that, according to the testimony gathered by the report itself, wants real libraries. The application of the report's half baked business concepts tot he present state of, and future prospects for, libraries is deplored and the elitism that pervades it is lamented. Reprinted, with minor changes, with permission from Library trends 46(1) Summer 1997 p28-35 (copyright 1997) The Board of Trustees University of Illinois

Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus--Horace Mountains will be in labour, the birth will be a single laughable little mouse

The worthy Benton Foundation, funded by the equally worthy Kellogg Foundation, has produced a report on the future of libraries (not explicitly restricted to public libraries but clearly to be read as such) based on interviews with `library leaders', public opinion surveys and colloquies to consider both. The result is, alas, replete with windy generalisations, unestablished premises, and specious assertions.

Which digital world?

To begin at the beginning (with the opening words of the executive summary on page 3) `This report is about librarians and the challenges they face in the digital world'. Which digital world would that be? The report offers no definition of this curious term and not even the sketchiest description of a digital world is given. It appears to stem from the implications of the pervasive notion, advanced by academics and some `library leaders'--many not librarians--and pushed by Big Computer Business, that the ubiquity of computers is changing society, life, and learning to a degree not seen since Herr Gutenberg. There is no evidence that this is so, despite all the pundits and prognosticators who have asserted it in thousands of books and articles--all printed on paper.

As if the, `digital world' were not enough, the third sentence of this report solemnly informs us that libraries face `the onset of the digital revolution, a seismic social shift'. Wow!

What is information?

The report is bedeviled, like most of its kin on the future of libraries, by the use of the word information to mean everything and nothing. In normal usage, information is taken to mean facts, data, small standalone texts, and images. There is another definition of information, of course. In that definition, apparently embraced by this report, information is used to mean all human communication (a Rembrandt is `visual information', Citizen Kane `cinematic information' and Moby Dick `textual and nautical information'). The problem is that, in meaning everything, information means nothing. Information, as normally understood, is not even the primary good with which libraries deal or have ever dealt. Who goes to a library to find out about the weather, highway traffic reports, TV/radio schedules, or a supermarket sale? Library users do come to the library for information but, far more often, they come for what makes libraries special--literature, entertainment, learning, and recorded knowledge in all its forms. The reason why technophiles stress information is very simple: computers are very good at storing and transmitting information and no good at all when it comes to preserving and making available leisure reading, literature, and recorded knowledge in all its forms.

What are we to make of the use in this report of the term `paper information resources' (p4)? It clearly is intended to include, say, War and peace, The origin of species, The double helix, The guns of August, and, come to that, Library, trends. Do the authors really think that these, and a myriad other, publications are about information or is this a calculated reductionism to disguise the central flaw in their central notion that we live in an information age? …