Monday, October 26, 2009

Libraries Protect Intellectual Freedom

I loved Marie's excellent post last week on Edmund S. Morgan, celebrator of libraries! The wonderful quotes she included made me consider for the first time libraries as storehouses of dangerous ideas, sort of boxes of the ingredients of weapons of mass destruction, just waiting for the right mind to wander in and see how to put it together! (here is the quote!)

[T]here is no more insidious instrument of change than a library in which professors or students or people in general are allowed to read the books.

In fact, in view of what books have done to change the world, it is strange that those who fear change have not succeeded in burning them all long since. The trouble with books is that people will read them. And when they do, they are bound to get new and dangerous ideas. Libraries are the great hothouses of change, where new ideas nursed into being and then turned loose to do their work. And the ideas are not always benign. One thinks at once of Karl Marx, laboring through the musty volumes of the British Museum and emerging with those notions that turned the world upside down. Or the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris--how much, one wonders, did its volumes contribute to the French Revolution?
As a librarian, I had always considered libraries as full of GOOD ideas, waiting to set people free. And I still think that's most often the truth. The first paper I ever published was about censorship, considering several unorthodox sides of it. Among them, the idea that if you censor information, you only make it spread faster, and make it more desireable. And, the rather more radical thought that censorship might actually be used to level the playing field, deliberately choosing to censor certain messages from majority players in order to disadvantage them in comparison to the minority groups over whom they usually triumph (per Marcuse, Herbert (1969) 'Repressive Tolerance,' in which he argues that tolerance, which is usually viewed as privileging the underdog, actually aids the majority far more.) Wow! That's uncomfortable!

So, here's another uncomfortable thought for all those people happily contemplating the digital libraries of the future. If we are content to digitize all the books and let the control of them fall into the hands of a corporation, even a corporation like Google, with a slogan like "be good, not evil," what kind of fools are we? In 20 years, or 100 years, will Google still be in business? If it has gone into bankruptcy or been through a merger or just has different corporate executives, will it still have the same philosophy guiding its decisions about making the materials freely available? Or what if China makes a coup and controls the country in which the ownership of Google resides? And that national government decides that free access to the books of the world is not in the best interests of the people of the world?

What will happen then if the libraries of the world have decided that, since the digitized copies are all available through Google Books, they don't need to have print copies on the shelves any more?

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

And this morning, at 11 AM, at the Boston State House, librarians and their supporters are rallying to remind legislators that public and state-supported school and higher education library budgets have been slashed again and again in budget cutting this year. As hard budget choices are made, librarians hope that legislators realize that people rely on their public libraries more than ever. And that education is the driver of the economic engine, and libraries are a key part of the education package. I cannot attend the rally, as I am preparing for class (and noodling on my blog). But I do not hear loud shouting... that would not really be like librarians after all, would it? I do hope they get a good turn out, though!