Are We Losing Our Cathedrals of Knowledge to Web-based Information?

Many thanks to Judy Gombita for recently sharing the blogpost “Librophiliac Love Letter: A  Compendium of Beautiful Libraries“.  

As I was perusing the photos, it struck me that these libraries make a profound statement about how we value books, knowledge and learning. These rooms are temples and cathedrals.

As information has multiplied in recent decades and access to it opened up, we are losing that sacred aspect to knowledge, and the architecture is disappearing with it. I suppose like most things the implications are both positive and negative. At the same time, I pity people in future who won’t have these kind of refuges to go to. Although much simpler than any of these places, the library in my high school was set apart like this: an oasis of wood-panelled peace among the chaos. It was a place I liked to frequent. It was an anchor. A cyber cafe is just not the same, even if it actually allows you to access more information and many more opinions.

So in a spin-off of a topic raised recently by Toni, my question to you is what is the impact on our shared culture of the migration of information and knowledge to the internet? In the short term, we can argue that access has been democratized an more people have been given voices, but are we losing a long-term perspective?  Libraries have been sanctuaries for ideas (and people) for millennia. Sometimes ideas have emerged and been vindicated centuries after first being penned. But will today’s online documents still be available in several centuries in the same way that Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are still with us? Will we need technological archaeologists in future who go back and extract texts written in obsolete technology? And what are the implications of this fleeting nature of knowledge for public relations?

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11 Replies to “Are We Losing Our Cathedrals of Knowledge to Web-based Information?

  1. I wanted to point out an article from this week’s issue of Now Magazine, Gladstone library’s Bloor bliss-out. (It’s quite an amusing, tongue-in-cheek read.)

    Although I earlier wrote my own love-poem comment about the Toronto Public Library system (specifically the Reference Library), I had no idea that it was the world’s busiest library system, or how comprehensive was its strategic plan. I must make a point of visiting the renovated Gladstone library, which sounds like an amazing Cathedral of (public) space and knowledge….

  2. Great piece, Kristen. Your key question (“But will today’s online documents still be available in several centuries in the same way that Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are still with us?”) is one that the British Library is trying to answer. The British Library is a truly forward-thinking cathedral of knowledge, or pagoda of knowledge if you look at it architecturally. They’ve recently launched to preserve web sites of special historical, social and cultural significance. The project regularly archives the contents of these sites to ensure that scholarly, cultural and scientific resources aren’t lost to future generations. One could argue that it’s ironic that one of the greatest cathedrals of knowledge today is actually helping to preserve the resources of what could be perceived to be a competing technology. But surely that’s missing the point. Isn’t it precisely this intellectual “largesse” that we so value in libraries?

  3. Wow, I had no idea this post would spark such a visceral reaction!

    I find Judy’s example of how her public library is adapting to the times to be encouraging.

    And for full disclosure, the term is not completely original. One of the reasons I chose my undergraduate university (the University of Pittsburgh) is because I fell in love with its emblematic gothic skyscraper, which is called the Cathedral of Learning.

  4. Kristen, I’m so glad you and others visited that link and were struck by the beauty of the “Cathedrals of Knowledge” (great imagery on your part!) highlighted. I remember being very deliberate about to whom (and how) I shared the information, trying to source it to individuals who shared my thirst/curiosity of knowledge, as well as my love of travel to wonderful destinations. You really did a superb job of developing the pictorial aspect and turning it into a thoughtful post. (I did have a great response on an individual basis, too, with people either telling me of which libraries they had visited or hoped to in future. Another outcome was that I now have an invitation to a personal tour of a building built in the same style and period as the ancient library in St. Gallen, Switzerland—which I will make every attempt to act upon in future.)

    Libraries—or at least access to books and knowledge—have always played a huge part in my life. As a child, living in a newly developed suburb in the west-end of Mississuaga, one of the highlights of my week was a visit to the Bookmobile, where I checked out as many books as was allowed. Usually I had read each one (sometimes twice) well before the Bookmobile paid another visit.

    As an adult I’ve been lucky to have access to Cathedrals of Knowledge. The University of Toronto (where I did my liberal arts degree) has one of the best-stocked university library systems in North America. And the same is true of the Toronto Public Library: at an event in the fall of 2008, Toronto’s Mayor David Miller indicated it was the largest public library system in Canada, with 99 branches and housing more than 11 million items.

    The downtown Toronto Metro Reference Library is quite an attractive building from a modern-architecture point of view. Five-floors high, it is an atrium-style building, with glassed-in elevators that allow one to view the hub of activity taking place on the ground floor when either ascending or descending, the circular stairwells, plus see the number of individuals making use of specialized areas congregated on each floor. But what is best about the Toronto Public Library (besides resource and number of access points) is how vibrant it is as an operation. Besides the huge stockpile of books, it has one of the best information databases on the continent (which one’s free library card provides access to). The number of general and specialized computer stations is immense, including things such as language training (ESL) and visual arts centres with a multitude of software programs. Several of the library branches (including the Metro Reference Library) provide free wifi access…and it is very well used, particularly by high school and college/university students. That’s another wonderful thing about the TPL: its users demonstrate a broad range of age groups, ethnic backgrounds and employment or school studies sectors.

    Beyond the physical (books, maps, documents, DVDs, videos, CDs, ESL learning materials and language listening laboratory), the Toronto Public Library system has been great about integrating into the lifeblood of the community. If you pick up its monthly What’s On catalogue, there are all kinds of free courses offered (e.g., “Surfing for Seniors” or “Employment Opportunities for New Immigrants”), special exhibits (books, posters, art or photography) and (free or low-cost) events (often co-sponsored), usually focused around authors and/or subject experts speaking on timely issues (e.g., readings by authors from their award-winning books, the environment or politics or activism). I’ve been to a few of these events and they are very well attended, with lively question and answer periods afterwards and great networking sessions (where one has great discussion with total strangers) at the receptions that follow.

    If necessary, I would happily pay a user’s fee for the Toronto Public Library system, considering it money well spent. Access to knowledge is the great equalizer, so I’m proud that the city of my birth continues to make the funding and growth of its library system and programs a financial and creative priority. I hope the Cathedrals of Knowledge featured in the Librophiliac Love Letter are in the same situation.

    (Note: next time I’m at the Metro Reference Library I’m going to check out how extensive are its public relations offerings.)

  5. What a great post and such thoughtful comments. I remember years ago, doing some research at the Library of Congress; some of that research involved looking at papers of a well-known journalist; she had penciled in scribbles in the margins and edited the paper with great gusto — lots of exclamation points! It was a glimpse into that newspaper editor’s personality and a wonderful glimpse into a moment in history. Another time at the LOC, I was allowed to review a book, printed in the 1600s. Just to touch the cover and the paper, beginning to crumble in spots, was a treat. I knew I was “touching history,” which made the contents all the more special, given the effort that a book printed in that time period required. I still remember that book and that moment, which left me with a deep admiration for the libraries that preserve so many great literary treasures.

  6. Just to think that we’re having this discussion is depressing. Libraries are anchors in the ocean of humankind’s knowledge. But they are slowly and painfully losing their hold as waves of Internet and wireless applications, and the quick think mentality these applications inspire, overwhelm their mission and role. Yes, new technologies inspire and encourage new knowledge by providing greater access via computers, cell phones and other devices, but because of the way they function and are monetized they also inherently trivialize the notion of libraries and the vetted books and papers that constitute the heart and soul of these venerable enterprises. We’ve heard about the end of history; are we now witnessing the end of codified knowledge? Will our children and their children’s children be the inheritors of a rootless respository of human thought driven largely by here-and-now intellectual mush? What would George Orwell think? What do you think?

  7. Andrew Keen made a good case in his book the “Cult of the Amateur – how today’s internet is killing our culture”. However, the internet gives its users the power of the monks of the middle-ages who possessed exclusive access to the world’s knowledge from their monastery libraries. Wow!

    It seems the good side of new things always comes with a bad one. It’s what makes life exciting. I believe that the days of our attraction to amateurs at the expense of professionals will be numbered. Moreover, the physical world will always outdo the virtual one – no matter what any Twitter says.

  8. Thanks to all for your comments. I am glad to know that I am not alone in my nostalgic reaction to those photos. Catherine, I think you have hit the nail on the head. Libraries don’t just offer access to ideas; they also offer a space conducive to absorbing and digesting them. And I think that whatever the benefits of accessing online information, we are losing that physical and mental space for reflection.

    I know that I too often leap from one task to another, with scarcely time to tidy up my desk, let alone to reflect on what I’ve just read and handled. In libraries, you ALWAYS had to take the time to put books back, or at least leave them on the reshelving cart, and the orderliness of this routine is also part of the charm of libraries.

    The other thing I think we are losing a bit is the ability to browse in quite the same way. Online searches tend to be very focused. At best, they may lead you onto an indirectly related line of inquiry. But gone is the opportunity to pick up the book with the intriguing cover simply because the author’s name alphabetically precedes the one whose book you were looking for (or similar serendipitous accidents). Amazon is great at pointing you to “similar” books, but not to these accidental discoveries.

  9. A very thought provoking post Kristen, thank you. And a belated thank you to Judy for the great link which sent me into a paroxysm of delight and led me to fritter $4.40 on the lotto in a bid to make my daydream of a visit to some those libraries a reality.

    As to your question Kristen, I think the biggest impact is the loss of silence, because silence breeds reflection and reflection allows us to understand. Understanding is critical for good relationships as well as allowing us to put our learning into some sort of context. Then we can think about it. Our new toys form an interesting paradox; although they help us to listen, they can often prevent us from listening in depth or thinking at any great length because the instant response, the instant opinion, the instant ‘know-how’ must be dispensed on demand.

    Good listening demands reflection and I am grateful to have stumbled on that lesson years ago when, during my childhood, I spent every hour I could at my local library. Not one of the glorious, enchanted places on Judy’s link, but a very practical 1960s prefab. Still, a beautiful place for me, because of the worlds, ideas, people and thinking you could find there, not to mention the conducive silence to be enjoyed.

    The digital library, the access device, the lifestream, the tweetdeck or the next big blah-blah-blah all provide excellent access to information and I can think of 1001+ things in their favour, but what they don’t provide is the same opportunity to reflect. Without reflection it all just stays as information, rarely becoming knowledge. Fast food can be a great option for a snack because it is instant, available, accessible and can be frugally shared among friends but I doubt anyone would consider the fast food menu in the long term as a sensible source of sustenance capable of maintaining health and growth.

    Online, the temptation to yammer is often too great. Observe how courtesy – another weak and often missing link in our current phase of evolution – has diminished; the price for a moment’s reflection or question can be a hostile response from an ‘instant guru’. As we create more digital spaces, I hope the edges cease to be quite so blurred; that we can create somewhere where the volume goes off, the alerts stay on mute and the cyber portal becomes a cyber port where we can pause from the information storm for a while. The physical library space may well end up being ‘so yesterday’, as local authorities stop funding them in favour of the online experience and what a shame that would be. I think there is – and needs to be – a place for both. Benita, you might like to check out what the National Library here in NZ has been up to regarding the development of digital library concepts, it is great stuff.

    The last part of your question Kristen concerned what all this meant for public relations. I’ve had a think (had to really) and perhaps one danger for practitioners is that amidst the infinite loop of noise we lose our ability to discern, identify, listen, understand and react – getting caught up with the information, rather than the people we should be working with.

    And finally, Toni – I would love to hear more about the library that had to be sold. Sounds like a story worthy of resting on its own shelf to me.

  10. The beautiful libraries on the photos that Judy shared with us also brought back memories of MY childhood. Although our town library was very plain by comparison, I still remember the feeling of excitement looking at the rows and rows of books on their high shelves and anticipating the treasures they held-impatiently waiting for school holidays when their exploration became a full time endeavour.

    And I do understand my husband (now retired) spending hours amongst the old books in the local library and envy him having the time to do so. I know that the hours he spends on the Internet searching for stuff is a chore and a convenience, but the hours spent in the library is a delight.

    Sharing these sentiments, I will thus make a point of following Toni’s suggestion to spend some hours in a beautiful library to lift the soul and bring peace amidst the chaos that characterizes our modern day existence. This experience will be akin to an evening at the theatre—a special occasion to be cherished. But this can no longer be part of an every-day pattern. Life moves on—and so do institutions such as libraries.

    Libraries have existed for many centuries, and their social role and practices have evolved through many forms of civilization and many formats of media. With the advent of computer networks and digital media, libraries employ yet another delivery system for yet another form of media. So I bring you the concept of `digital library’ which according to Borgman (1999) connotes the ‘future library’, in which the institution is transformed to address the new environment in which it exists. A sense of continuity and the maintenance of information resources over time (`to conserve, preserve’) is implicit in a ‘digital library.’

    The term digital library is relatively new. Scholarly and professional interest in digital libraries exploded worldwide in the 1990s and has grown rapidly since. Interest in this field has attracted scholars and practitioners from many different backgrounds. The variety of concerns within the digital libraries research community reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the topic. The field of public relations is however not yet part of this research community.

    In a paper to be delivered at the 12th International PR Research Conference in Miami on Thursday 12 March 2009, Mike Daily from California (main author) and I are delivering a paper on the concept of ‘digital library’ and its utilization by practitioners as a tool to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the field of public relations.

    So yes, Kristen, the info will still be available in years to come in those fields that embrace the concept of ‘digital library’. If PR stores important information in digital libraries where digital preservation and migration are practised as a matter of routine (i.e. processes and activities that ensure continued access to information and records in digital formats), public relations could be one of those fields.

  11. Impressive timing for this post, Kristen.

    Only a few weeks ago I was in Catania for a highly stimulating discussion with coelleagues, scholars and students on my recent ‘in what sense? what is public relations’ videobook.

    I was privileged and escorted by a fantastically attractive librarian to visit Catania’s antique library in the Monastero dei Benedettini and was inundated by the same types of thoughts which you express in your post.

    My father was the proud last owner of what was one of Italy’s most precious libraries which his successors could not find adequante space for and thus sold it…

    I remember, when I was a kid,I used to tiptoe into this glamorous (what else is adequate?) space to whisper my needs and he would regularly tell me to pick up any book and read it:
    ‘this is the only way you are sure not to waste your time which is the only precious commodity one may not buy’.

    And now the Internet and its twittering consequences…

    Yeah, the world has changed, but if our profession has something to do with having something more than a superficial understanding of issues (and this is a huge question…) and if we honestly believe we are curious human beings (and this is another good question..), then we should make it a must (haven’t really started yet…but certainly plan to following my visit to Catania)to spend time in libraries as we go our for a morning run or to the movie (ot to the theater…another forgotten value for me..) to be carried away by good story telling and showing…

    Thank you for bringing this up.

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