Category Archives: cultural

virtual libraries, real ones, empires

Handsworth readers.jpg Last Tuesday, a Washington Post editorial written by Library of Congress librarian James Billington outlined the possible benefits of a World Digital Library, a proposed LOC endeavor discussed last week in a post by Ben Vershbow. Billington seemed to imagine the library as sort of a United Nations of information: claiming that “deep conflict between cultures is fired up rather than cooled down by this revolution in communications,” he argued that a US-sponsored, globally inclusive digital library could serve to promote harmony over conflict:
Libraries are inherently islands of freedom and antidotes to fanaticism. They are temples of pluralism where books that contradict one another stand peacefully side by side just as intellectual antagonists work peacefully next to each other in reading rooms. It is legitimate and in our nation’s interest that the new technology be used internationally, both by the private sector to promote economic enterprise and by the public sector to promote democratic institutions. But it is also necessary that America have a more inclusive foreign cultural policy — and not just to blunt charges that we are insensitive cultural imperialists. We have an opportunity and an obligation to form a private-public partnership to use this new technology to celebrate the cultural variety of the world.
What’s interesting about this quote (among other things) is that Billington seems to be suggesting that a World Digital Library would function in much the same manner as a real-world library, and yet he’s also arguing for the importance of actual physical proximity. He writes, after all, about books literally, not virtually, touching each other, and about researchers meeting up in a shared reading room. There seems to be a tension here, in other words, between Billington’s embrace of the idea of a world digital library, and a real anxiety about what a “library” becomes when it goes online.
I also feel like there’s some tension here — in Billington’s editorial and in the whole World Digital Library project — between “inclusiveness” and “imperialism.” Granted, if the United States provides Brazilians access to their own national literature online, this might be used by some as an argument against the idea that we are “insensitive cultural imperialists.” But there are many varieties of empire: indeed, as many have noted, the sun stopped setting on Google’s empire a while ago.
To be clear, I’m not attacking the idea of the World Digital Library. Having watch the Smithsonian invest in, and waffle on, some of their digital projects, I’m all for a sustained commitment to putting more material online. But there needs to be some careful consideration of the differences between online libraries and virtual ones — as well as a bit more discussion of just what a privately-funded digital library might eventually morph into.