The inheritance of real information

Keith Hudson

In a comment which was only meant as an aside in a recent post, I happened to mention that I thought books would survive for centuries even in a digital age.  I hadn’t given it much thought but, on reflection, I am still of the same opinion — mainly . . . because a book is such a handy thing to have and to carry around (that is, without being snatched away by a thief).

The only problem with a book in this age of a generally declining culture is that, for most people most of the time, to be seen reading a book is considered to be either a pretentious or a silly thing to do — and requiring making an effort, too!  Surely everything in a book can be so much better presented in video form!

I can think of a very good reason why books will survive — at least for, say, two or three hundred years — while information gleaned from the internet might not be so clever or so accurate.  But before I mention why, let me quote some comments made by Roly Keating, Director of the British Library when speaking at the Hay Literature Festival yesterday.  Mind you, he has a special axe to grind on behalf of libraries where books are to be found as second-best places (rather than in our hands) and his views are, let us say, a trifle biased.  Nevertheless, his comments are worth reading:

“The British LIbrary has countless worth defending, including trust. . . . Libraries could prove to be the most powerful and resilient network yet.  These values predated the internet, and if we get them right, might well outlast it.  Libraries hold a vital place in communities and are increasingly important in terms of authentic information in the digital age.  Critically, libraries have been able to build up trust with members of the public.

“I am surprised how many smart people ask me, ‘do we really need these library things in this age of smart phones, search engines and so on?’  It is a serious question at a time of public policy over investment.  What we collectively believe libraries to be will determine what form they survive in.  This feels a pretty brutal choice that we are allegedly confronted with.  I think it is a false contradiction and an utterly false choice to make.

“When we talk about libraries, I’m told about the old traditional values of these institutions.  some believe they are being replaced by new ines about being more open and connected and virtual.  Our belief at the British LIbrary is that it’s about both.  And that’s the great richness of what a library is and can be.

“I am very struck by the strength of global networks dedicated to the preservation of information, even as society increasingly depends on the internet.  They stand out for a certain freedom, and privacy of thought and search and expression.  They stand for private study in a social space.   They’re safe, they’re places of sanctuary and play a role in the poorest communities.  And they are trusted.

“Our commercial partners in the information delivery space do wonderful things and we couldn’t live our lives without them.  But the timee frame we in libraries think on, centuriees back and centuries into the future allows us to think about trust in its highest sense, and authentication and provenance of information, and digital information in oarticular.  Those are hard-won privileges and values and they’re worth defending.”

I’d go along with all this.  But there’s only one real kind of information.  With all the libraries and internets in the world (in this case usually above it!) information of any importance can still only be passed on between one mind and another.   When all the pages in books have finally rotted away witn atmospheric corrosion and when all the information on the internet has been degraded by powerful cosmic radiation from space then skills, information and knowledge, if it still exists in future times, will still be dependent on individuals passing on spoken words, written symbols and drawings to other individuals with a pat on the shoulder to help sometimes.

In those days, some other form of intermediary memory technology will be invented but, for the next 200 or 300 years at least, I think the book will still retain its popularity, perhaps not among the hoi polloi with magical devices to dull their senses but with scholars who like to roam backwards and forwards so conveniently in a book when they are debating with the author.

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