Libraries are wonderful places. I enjoy spending time in libraries, and they are essential to a free people. Libraries contain our thoughts, our histories, our creative works of literature and often art as well, and our dreams.
Libraries are changing in today’s world, in ways that are both exciting and cautionary. What can go wrong with libraries?
Two recent events have prompted me to think about libraries: our recent vacation in Washington, DC and a new Vermont law.
In Washington we visited two world-class libraries: the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Library of Congress is particularly relevant to this discussion because it is the largest library in the world and it is the home of the United States Copyright Office.
Works created by authors and artists are covered by copyright law. Authors and artists may, if they wish, register their works with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration typically requires the deposit of two nonreturnable copies of the work. Copyright deposits make up the bulk of the holdings of the Library of Congress, which includes about 25 million books and nearly 150 million other items. More info about the collections of the Library of Congress at these links: General Information, Frequently Asked Questions.
Shortly after returning home from our vacation in Washington, I was given reason to think about a different kind of library. I learned that the Vermont legislature passed a new law requiring towns to budget for the “restoration, preservation, digitization, storage, and conservation of municipal records.” (Act 38 of the 2019-2020 session) The town vault is a kind of library. There is much history in the land records and the town records. Town government in my town, which I am part of, will need to meet the requirements of Act 38. We will need to think like librarians.
The world is moving toward digitization. The Library of Congress has extensive Digital Collections. The Folger Shakespeare Library has considerable Online Resources. Act 38 nudges Vermont town governments to move toward digitization.
Talk of digitization reminds me of the Google Books project. Google wanted to digitize every book in the world, and they made a good start. In 2010 Google estimated that there were 125 million books in the world, and said that they had scanned 25 million of them, creating searchable files. That’s a big deal. But the project came to an end in 2011 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The problem was copyright law.
The story of Google Books is fascinating – from Google’s technology and logistics to the intricacies of copyright law. If you aren’t familiar with the story, I recommend this article in The Atlantic dated April 20, 2017: Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria. You can access some of what Google did here: https://books.google.com/.
I am a fan of digitization. It makes searching and access so much easier. And yet digitization brings new risks of its own. For example, it makes forgery and fraud easier. Digitization makes censorship easier.
Consider a hypothetical example. Suppose you are reading Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, the only book he wrote, at Google Books. (The book at that link was scanned from a paper book at the New York Public Library. Check it out. It’s searchable.) There may be people, now or in the future, who think this book contains objectionable material because Jefferson owned slaves. How do we know that the ebook hasn’t been edited to alter or remove “bad” material? Certainly the technology exists to do so, and still make the ebook look like it is unaltered from the original paper book. (See the article in The Atlantic linked above.)
Long before the Internet, Ray Bradbury wrote a dystopian novel about burning books: Fahrenheit 451 (1953). The title refers to the temperature at which paper burns. In 1978 Bradbury became aware that student editions of his book had been altered, without his permission or knowledge, to remove “objectionable” material:
Students reading the novel, which, after all, deals with censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony.
Bradbury wrote about numerous other instances where he had been asked to alter his works to remove “objectionable” material (he always refused) and noted:
There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches.
The above quotes are from the “Coda” that Bradbury wrote in 1979, which can be found in the end materials in the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 (2013).
In 1949 George Orwell wrote the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (or 1984) about a future authoritarian government controlled by the Party. One of several themes in this book concerns the occupation of the protagonist, Winston Smith.
Smith worked in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue). His job was to alter records of the past to conform to whatever the Party wanted them to say. For example, enemies of the Party were erased – no trace remained that they ever existed. The Party’s slogan was (Part One, Chapter III):
Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.
Smith explained the result to his lover, Julia (Part Two, Chapter V):
History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
People in Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 are not free. They cannot freely share ideas with each other. They cannot learn from history because they have lost history. They need libraries that they can trust. We need libraries that we can trust, including the “library” that is the town vault with its historical land records and town records.
Every library should include Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. (Not the town vault.) Every person should read Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 and ponder the risks of those dystopias, including how those risks are heightened in our modern digital world.
The photo at the top of this post is the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, taken on May 30, 2019 during our recent trip to Washington, DC. My grandfather studied at the Library of Congress in 1932.
The Library of Congress was burned once, by the British in August 1814 during the War of 1812, when it was housed in the Capitol and consisted of about 3,000 books. Congress restocked the collection by purchasing the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, then in his 70s and retired from public service, consisting of 6,487 books. In 1897 the Library of Congress was moved to a magnificent new building, which was renamed in 1980 as the Thomas Jefferson Building, with the Main Reading Room shown above.