Friday, 12 March 2010

Towards a New Alexandria

Long, thoughtful and wide-ranging article by Lisbet Rausing in The New Republic about the future of academic libraries in a digital environment.

It is clear that if a new Alexandria is to be built, it needs to be built for the long term, with an unwavering commitment to archival preservation and the public good. A true public good itself, it probably needs to be largely governmentally funded. And, while a global and cooperative venture, it needs to be hosted by one organisation that is reputable, long-standing, nonprofit, and exists in a stable jurisdiction. The Library of Congress, the flagship institution of the world’s only surviving Enlightenment republic, comes to mind. There might be other possibilities, such as the New York Public Library, or the British Library, or a consortium of the world’s leading university libraries—UCLA, Harvard, Cambridge University, and so on.

In other words, the question for scholars and gatekeepers is not whether change is coming. It is whether they will be among the change-makers. And if not them, then who? Who else will ensure long-term conservation and search abilities that are compatible across the bibliome and over time? Who else will ensure equality of access? Ultimately, this is not a challenge of technology, finances, or ultimately even laws, difficult though they are. It is a challenge of will and imagination.

Answering that challenge will require some soul-searching: Do we have the generosity to collaborate? Can we build legal, organizational, and financial structures that will preserve and order—but also share and disseminate the learning of the world? Scholars have traditionally gated and protected knowledge, yet also shared and distributed it in libraries, schools, and universities. We have stood for a republic of learning that is wider than the ivory tower, and now is the time to do so again. We must stand up, as the Swedes say, for folkbildningsidealet, that profoundly democratic vision of universal learning and education...

Worth reading in full.

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