Baker Academic

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Libraries: Brick, Mortar, and Commemoration - Le Donne

So I was watching a TED talk by a lexicographist recently on my fancy Roku streaming device. (That sentence alienates most of our Pennsylvania Dutch demographic.) It wasn't a great lecture so I won't recommend it with a link, but one interesting thing that she said concerned the loss of serendipity with online media. She was making a strong case for online and open-source dictionaries but acknowledged that something might be lost in the move past bound dictionaries. Have you ever had the experience of flipping through a bound dictionary, looking for a word, and finding a different word that you've never seen before?  Serendipity, baby!

I feel the same way about brick and mortar libraries.  I can get almost everything I need online these days.  I live about an hour from the nearest theological library, so I am quite thankful for this.  But I have felt a particular loss of serendipity with my dot com explorations. Case in point: this book caught my eye while I was in the Durham University library once upon a time and it changed my life. (By the way, there is a newer edition of that book out now.)  If I had not found the brilliant work of Fentress and Wickham I would have been tempted to mirror my PhD supervisor's contributions to the field.  I remember thinking that Dunn's Jesus Remembered (not yet published at the time) was the best book about Jesus I had ever read.  I was thrilled to  be working with him and lamenting that he had got to the intersection of memory/ historiography/ Jesus first.  The work of Fentress and Wickham was a revelation to me and allowed Dunn to become a devil's advocate to my thesis.  He's quite good in that role.

I have had serendipitous experiences online too. I've benefited from the whole "Other customers suggested these items" thing on Amazon, but it's not the same.  Simply put: there are too many books in circulation.  Self-publishing, poor editing, and poorly-vetted books abound.  It is impossible to know whether a book is worth purchasing from the "look inside" feature.  The brick and mortar experience allows you to take a book out for a date and get to know it a bit better.  Does it really enjoy long walks on the beach, or was it just saying so in its online profile?  There is just something romantic about the brick and mortar experience.

I'm sure that J.I. Packer holds similar views about the virtue of type-writers over and against computers.  While I have Luddite tendencies myself, I'm not suggesting that we try to hold back progress.  I'm quite thankful for search engines and spellcehck.  But when we lose the majority of our brick and mortar libraries (and this seems inevitable), we will have lost something precious.  It's not just the serendipity, and not just the romance.  The most precious thing about brick and mortar libraries is that they are monuments to the importance of well-considered ideas.  The internet is the wild west right now. It does not resemble the best of our civilization.  And while this might appeal to libertarians (for reasons of independence) and Marxists (for reasons of flux), this aspect of cyber-space does not appeal to me.  Libraries commemorate civilization in a way that the internet cannot.

Maurice Halbwachs, the father of social memory theory, suggested that a society's chosen topography reflected its identity.  Commemorative activity can happen in the world of abstract ideas (for example on the calendar), but it can also happen concretely.  Brick and mortar isn't just stuff; the bound book isn't just a media option; such physicalities are identity-shaping commemorations.  Shifts in media result in shifts in culture.

I am not saying that traditions must be maintained at all costs, but I will say that seismic shifts like the internet require culture shapers (what might be called remembrancers) to think long and hard about the consequences just around the corner.  When I go to a theological library I participate in a cathedral of memory.  By participating, I reinforce my membership in a specific culture.  It doesn't really matter what sort of book I pick up or which word I find serendipitously.  The choice to explore commemorative space is an identity-reinforcing act.  When I surf the internet, I am doing something else entirely... and I'm not quite sure what sort of identity I will find for myself.  It very well might mean a lack of identity.



  1. I'm pretty sure most Amish net surfers know "lexicographer". But anyway...

    This sounds familiar, but I don't think we risk a lack of identity so much as a lack of "an" identity. Or group identity. At least, society wide group identity.

    Sounds like another battle between the mass market and the "Long Tail" theory. Or what Seth Godin said last year about the future of publishing:

    "the market for the foreseeable future is a million publishers publishing to 100 million readers. Do the math. Lots of choice, not a lot of whistles. And no bells."

    Or buildings. At least, not quite so many...

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  3. Important issues. How does one measure serendipity or compare it in the way implied above? One might argue that the internet provides abundantly more such experiences.

    You mentioned that "Libraries commemorate civilization in a way that the internet cannot."

    Is this primarily because libraries are more concrete, stationary ‘landmarks’ of civilization vs. digital/online media? I've reflected a bit on this.

    1. Thank you Josh, I think that you've misconstrued my intent in your post. I don't think that we can stop media shifts if we become worried about them. I'm simply suggesting that we should be aware that such shifts will have consequences. Further, I'm suggesting that the loss of print media might mean the loss of commemorative topography. I think that this is worth considering. So I thank you for propelling the conversation.

      Finally, one doesn't measure serendipity.

    2. Of course one doesn't measure serendipity. :)

      While I can't agree with the suggestion that I've misconstrued your post, I make no attempt to surmise what your intentions were!

      I think it is fair to say that your suggestion for "culture shapers .... to think long and hard about the consequences around the corner" suggests that they are in a position to act differently in view of those consequences than if they had not considered them. (Or is there another reason they should 'think long and hard' about it?)

      Granted, they won't stop culture shifts (and I recognize you're not claiming that they can). I was suggesting that (1) many of those consequences remain to be seen and (2) there is little that such 'culture shapers' can do to affect those they can foresee.

      In final part of my post, I was attempting to get at the possibility that perhaps the topography isn't lost, but changed. And I'm not sure we know exactly what it will look like. After all, it's hard to even speak about what the "web" is because it is in flux (e.g., Web 1.0, 2.0, and so on). Perhaps the next stage of the web will incorporate something unforeseen that will affect commemorative topography positively.

      Interesting, to say the least. Thanks for responding.

    3. Josh, you ask: "Or is there another reason they should 'think long and hard' about it?"

      Yes, there are many, many reasons to think about shifts in culture beyond the simplistic notion that one can turn back the tide of progress.


    4. I thought I clarified I was not suggesting something like stopping a culture shift, and certainly I didn't say anything in my comment implying 'turn[ing] back the tide of progress'.

      What sort of specific reasons do you have in mind for suggesting that culture shapers should think long and hard about cultural shifts?

  4. I resisted chiming in on the cost of publishing post (yet anyway), but I'll comment here.

    There is a definite identity shift in how we interact with media and information and I agree that we're only beginning to explore the affordances and losses of an increased consumption of information digitally untied to place and process (i.e. research on an ipad in a coffee shop being almost mechanically indistinguishable from research at a computer in one's office).

    At the risk of speaking well outside my field, I'm always struck by the oft alluded to research about the mechanics of handwriting and its benefits on memory or the impact on children in growing up in houses with books (not necessarily reading those books!). As you note, we simply don't yet know how the shift to digital interacts with how we learn and work.

    However, one might look to the advent of maker spaces (using 3d printers and print on demand) and curation tools (e.g. storify, pinterest,, diigo ) to suggest that we may be entering an era when we become as concerned with making the transitory digital world less ephemeral and more tangible (physically or digitally) as we have been concerned with making the physical digital. Arguably this shift creates alternate forms of topography (digital memory palace anyone?) but we don't know if this will have the same formative impact that, for example, libraries have had.

  5. Thanks to libraries, serendipity doesn't just happen.