Memory’s Echo

Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened into the rose-garden. —T. S. Eliot

To any of you who've met me, this may come as a surprise: If I'd not found the company where I work now, I'd probably be a librarian. When I moved from New York to Connecticut, I went from one of the most publishing-rich job markets to one that skirted the periphery (not unlike much of CT culture: Why bother too much, when New York City is so close?). While CT does have a number of publishing companies, it can't touch NYC, the industry Mecca. Thus, I seriously considered the possibility that it was time for a career change. I made lists of what I love to do and the industries where I could best put my loves (and skills) to work, and at the top of the list was Library Science.

I went so far as to look for schools in CT where I could return to obtain an MLS degree and applied for several library positions to "test drive" the potential career. I was terribly enthusiastic about the possibility of joining the ranks of men and women who, throughout my life, knew the next best thing to knowing everything: Where to find everything out.

But without a doubt, librarians (and libraries) represent more than a place to look for information. In fact, that part of their role—at least in initial forays and for superficial inquiry—has been rapidly subsumed by the Web. And in many cases, the subscription services to which many organizations relied on library access for have been made available directly to individuals via the digital medium. Those of you who read this column probably know my views on the wisdom (and actual knowledge) this unfettered and unfiltered access currently provides; that content now flows directly into the hands of those who will leverage it is a fact that has inevitably changed the library's role.

As the inclusion of the British Library in December's EContent 100 list (not to mention the Internet Archive's presence in the InSites section) would suggest, libraries are not necessarily content to meekly go with the digital content flow. Rather, some are taking a leadership role, recognizing that their experiences as managers, distillers, and purveyors of massive quantities of information make them uniquely qualified to conceptualize and address the opportunities and excesses the Web provides.

Umberto Eco, best known for his nearly impenetrable The Name of the Rose, recently spoke at the reopened Bibliotheca Alexandrina. At the library, which traces its roots to about 260 B.C., Eco held forth on his classification of the "three types of memory:" organic, which is the memory of flesh and blood; vegetal, which includes the tradition of papyrus through today's books; and mineral, which was at one time represented by clay tablets and obelisks. In this last class, he also included today's electronic memory. In his singular style, he said of the Bibliotheca, "This place has been in the past and will be in the future devoted to the conservation of books; thus, it is and will be a temple of vegetal memory." Of libraries, he said, "They were and still are a sort of universal brain where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know."

He went on to discuss and dismiss the oft-made claim that the Internet will be the death of books, though he posits that even if books ceased to exist, it would not mandate an end of libraries, as they could then serve as book museums. And this is where he loses me. Anyone who's attempted The Name of the Rose knows that Eco will repeatedly lose and find his audience; it's part of the adventure. In this case, he finds me again when he speaks of the non-linear nature of the computational memory. He also makes some fine points about the fact that good old technologies (like the bicycle) are not necessarily supplanted by better new ones (the car), and about the way the Internet is changing publishing and bookselling business models.

But where he does not venture, and I would have had him go, is into the future of a library not limited to vegetal memory. We once thought of bookstores as bound by walls, but now arguably one of the leading booksellers and most innovative content companies, Amazon, is only found online. Publishing, once a veritable club privè, has now had its doors thrown open to the masses via the Web.

So what of the library? The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, for one, is not meekly heading toward the role of a book museum; its digital archive already totals 100 terabytes of content. For the future, the library's goal is merely to provide the "full range of human knowledge…in all its forms." And the library's director, Ismail Serageldin, when citing the library's mission, specifically notes that it must be "an instrument for rising to the digital challenge."

An "instrument" sounds a whole lot more active than a museum for viewing quaint old printed tomes. Not unlike those of us who, by desire or destiny, may have to change career paths many times in life, there are libraries not content to sit by the wayside and watch digital content possibilities pass them by.