The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Virtual Libraries: Past, Present, and Future

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virtual_libraryThis commentary will review the 1994 James O’Donnell  essay, “The Virtual Library:  An Idea Whose Time Has Passed”.  After critiquing the essay, a synthesis will describe the two diverging arguments brought forth by the author, and the weaknesses of the conclusions reached.

The essay argues that the “virtual library”, as an all encompassing, centralized repository of “universal knowledge”, is an ancient aspiration. O’Donnell states that the “fantasy” of the virtual library is an ancient one that is “almost coterminous with the history of the book itself” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 9).  This ancient hope is now encapsulated with today’s technology of the Internet and computer.   However, O’Donnell believes that society now risks excising the traditional roles the library has played for centuries in this quest to create the virtual library.  He describes the central roles of the library as, “an extraordinary one, of course, and thus fragile” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 8).  One of these functions has been to collect codices and books to help knowledge survive.  While the continuing to focus of preserving knowledge, the library collections changed, “between the traditional literary culture of antiquity and the chiefly monastic Christian textual culture of the middle ages” (O’Donnell, 1994, para 12).

Another central tenet of the library that the author further describes is the “authority” and centralized power that books developed and maintained concurrently with libraries.  Text maintained power due to the acceptance, expectation, and reliance on its existence (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 15).  O’Donnell sees this deference to text as a, “reliance on texts implies that someone will own texts and they will be accessible: ownership and access remain central concerns in all discussion of the present and future of the library” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 20).  He sees these issues of the power of text, and the control and access to text as being predominant issues up to and including modern libraries.

Both ancient and modern libraries have also seen them share, “the fantasy of the virtual library” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 24).  This is due to all libraries, virtual or otherwise seeing themselves as receptacles of the culmination of knowledge.  However, O’Donnell sees the concept of any library, virtual or otherwise, fulfilling such as goal, being “at best a useful fiction, at worst a hallucination” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 28).  He also sees virtual libraries as creating risks for authors, professors, publishers, librarians, and scholars, for the stability of text and its ability to transmit key knowledge to new generations (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 31-32). Further, the very dominance of text in under threat the face of the visual and aural capabilities of a virtual library (i O’Donnell, 1994, para 27).  The author further questions where the control and access functions will be maintained within a virtual libraries contents as, “one of the most valuable functions of the traditional library has not been its inclusivity but its exclusivity that keeps out as many things as it keeps in” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 36).  O’Donnell sees the most positive of outcomes as being a virtual library the incorporates all that exists now in libraries but, “only better and faster” (O’Donnell, 1994, para 34).

In my opinion, O’Donnell’s arguments are unclear as he describes two divergent, but incongruent themes.  One theme describes the virtual library in terms of a “myth” that will not come to fruition, while the other theme acknowledges the development of the virtual library while worrying about the change or extinction of many of the traditional roles of libraries that may come with a virtual library.

One area of concern is that O’Donnell appears to argue that the form of the library is one that only in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries saw change.  However, he refutes his own point when he notes that libraries changed from a scholarly to a Christian focus. (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 12).  Further, this evolution of the library is also seen by Roy (1997) who notes that, “although the clientele, sources of funding, classification system, and prevailing media has changed, the fundamental function of the library has remained stable throughout history” (para. 1).  The library has experienced change but has continued to exist.

Another area of concern is regarding the centralized power of the library.  Other proponents of the virtual library such as Babbar and Chandok (2008), also note that “the most critical issues in a digital archiving strategy are not technical, although these are formidable, but economic, societal, and organizational” (p. 295).  Roy (1997) also explains, “the potential for censorship, control of access to knowledge and information, and limitation of intellectual freedom is boundless” (para. 12).  While the issue of control may be a continuing issue, if “the library” continues to function as a monolithic entity with all included media scrutinized, cataloged, and housed within a library that has “one ideal form” (O’Donnell, 1994, para. 26), there may be an alternative outcome.  It can be argued that the Internet and thus a virtual library could be the exact antithesis of this unified form due to the vast number of sources from individuals writing weblogs to media organizations creating online content.  All of these wellsprings are separate, yet within the loose coalescence of the Internet are simultaneously accessible and thus create individual personal libraries for every “netizen”.  While an entity such as a university may reject a text in codex or electronic form for its library, virtual or otherwise, the difference is that the electronic text may still be accessible from another online source.  To this end, the question must be raised if the control function of libraries is a vital, necessary, or viable one or are there better roles to play.

O’Donnell’s argument that the “author is already an endangered species,” (para. 28) can be disputed as anyone with Internet access may become a published author with a readership from zero to millions.  While O’Donnell may be concerned about the survival of the library, others are not.  Babbar and Chandok write that, “to claim, as some now do, that the “Paperless Society” will make libraries obsolete is as silly as saying shoes have made feet unnecessary” (p. 298).  McClure (1995) continues this belief by declaring, “whatever it is called – library, learning center, digital or virtual library – the institution will continue to be a place” (p. 314). The author appears cynical of a technologically-based decentralized library proposed by some.  To be sure, a pollyanna optimism surrounding virtual libraries is not useful either, only a balanced consideration of the positives and benefits of the concept will help examination this important scholarly topic in a thorough manner.  If O’Donnell’s dystopic library vision is true, then other cultural edifices such as museums and art galleries may also be headed for their demise.  However, I suggest that it is more likely that all libraries will continue and evolve into new, still vital forms that continue to serve their patrons.


Babbar, P., & Chandhok, S. (2008). Paperless Society: A Digital Library Future.  Retrieved from

McClure, L. W. (1995). From brick face to cyberspace. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 83(3), 311.  Retrieved from

O’Donnell, James J. (1994) “The Virtual Library; An Idea Whose Time Has Passed.” Retrieved from

Roy, M. V. (Spring 1997). ” The Virtual Library: Rhetoric and Reality.  Retrieved from

October 2, 2009   1 Comment

How has the Technology of Writing Changed the Act of Teaching?

17th Century Parish Registry Letters
Graphic taken with permission from

In my opinion…

Teaching today, is highly dependent upon technologies such as writing. As members of a literate culture, writing has been the focal point of most all of our learning. From the time we are born we have been encouraged to learn how to write. Whether it’s from our earlier years when we learned to write the alphabet, build words and create sentences or during adolescence when we were expected to take notes and write comprehensive papers, writing has always been and will probably always be a focal point in our lives.

It is hard for us to imagine what the written word has done for learning because as literate people, we haven’t experienced anything else. We have no other point of reference other than what we have read or heard about. “… to try to construct a logic of writing without investigation in depth of the orality out of which writing is permanently and ineluctably grounded is to limit one’s understanding…” (Ong, p. 76) Before we can discuss how writing has changed how we teach, it would seem logical to consider first how teaching was performed prior to the introduction of the written word.

Language existed long before writing which meant that verbal communication was the medium through which all cultural knowledge was passed on to the next generation. As language and culture continued to evolve so did the need for better modes of communication. Early forms of writing date back to the days of pictographs when people scratched drawings on stone walls depicting important events within the lives of their people. It allowed for the transfer of more complex information, ideas and concepts using visual clues. (Kilmon) From pictographs came ideographs or graphic symbols such as those used by the Egyptians (hieroglyphs), the Sumerians (cuneiform) and the Chinese (Chinese characters). Writing is an extension of these and other systems where agreed upon simple shapes were used to create a codified system of standard symbols. These systems continued to evolve throughout ancient history. The Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Christians either modified existing systems of simply created their own. These systems were not widely understood and were only used and by relatively few people. More often than not, it was the clergy who played an important role in the development and maintenance of these systems during this time. It took the invention of the printing press and the printed word before literacy began to have any mass appeal. (History of Handwriting)

The development of writing shifted the focus of learning orally to learning visually which, in turn, taught us how to interiorize it thus changing the nature of how we learn. “Writing… is not a mere appendage to speech. Because it moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, it transforms speech and thought as well.” (Ong, p. 84) Speaking and writing are two different processes. Speech is universal. Everybody acquires it. Writing is not speech written down. Writing requires systematic instruction followed by practice. Not everyone learns to read and write. (Literacy Skills: Speaking vs. Writing) “Clearly, there are fundamental differences between the medium of writing and the medium of speech which constitute ‘constraints’ on the ways in which they may be used.” (Chandler) It has taken a considerable amount of time for writing to superseded speech as the primary tool for learning. The transition, while it may have been awkward for some, has succeeded in altering the way in which we now learn.

Learning in today’s literate culture relies more on text and writing and less on the spoken word. We devote more time teaching students to how to read and write and we expect them use these newly acquired literacy skills to think and to reason intellectually. As teachers, we tend to measure success with either a letter grade or a number grade. “If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently then they did.” (Postman, p.13) For teachers, marking or grading is synonymous with learning. Our indoctrination into the literate culture is so complete that it is difficult if not impossible to separate the two. Our dependence on the written word is so complete that it has taken us head on into a new era known as the information age.

The onslaught of the digital age has raised many new issues within education and with existing teaching models in particular. The field of Information technology has grown so rapidly that it’s impossible to keep up with the pace. Technical gadgetry continues to astound even the most computer savvy individual, and while these technologies may have heightened our awareness of the digital world we now live in, it may have also dulled our sensitivity to the dominance it has had on our literate world. “… embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.” (Postman, P13) Technology, in this case the computer and the internet, which has given us instant access to knowledge in the public domain, has challenged the way we view teaching and learning much the same way that writing did so long, long ago.

In conclusion, while I may not necessarily agree with Ong’s statements about the dichotomy of oral and literate cultures, I do believe that there is some merit to his separation of the two cultures. If nothing else, it has helped to explain how previous learning practices may have been altered and current teaching practices will be shaped. I have similar doubts about Postman, about his technopoly taxonomy and his position on computer technologies. However, it does get us to think about how these technologies can alter our conception of learning. It seems apparent that, for the most part, we are in unchartered waters. As teaching practitioners, we have no other choice but to take all of this into consideration as we go about constructing teaching strategies designed to promote practical learning and abstract thinking.


Chandler, D. (2000). Biases of the Ear and Eye. Great Divide Theories. Retrieved on September 25, 2009 from:

History of Handwriting. The Development of Handwriting and the Modern Alphabet. Retrieved on September 24, 2009 from

Kilmon, Jack (1997) The Scriptorium: The History of Writing. Retrieved on September 25, 2009 from

Ong, Walter J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. London, England: Routledge / Taylor & Francis Group

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Todd, Joanne (2001) Examples of Letters of the 17th Center Found in Parish Registers. Retrieved on September 17th, 2009 from

University of Westminster: Learning Skills Site. Literacy Skills: Speaking vs. Writing. Retrieved on September 23, 2009 from:

October 2, 2009   1 Comment

A Different Lens to View Through

Our ability for making and receiving sounds is amazing.  Sound is a resource central to humanity.  In Walter Ong’s book,  Orality and Literacy (1982) the importance of our oral nature is seen as a foundation for language and communication. Ong (1982) states that “language is an oral phenomenon” (p. 6) and continues by saying “in a deep sense language, articulated sound, is paramount. Not only communication, but thought itself relates in an altogether special way to sound.”(Ong, 1982, p. 7)   Ong’s analysis of the sound thought connection is enlightening.  However, beneath his analysis are remnants of another perspective that also reveals an enlightened view on human orality and communication.

This subtext can be seen emerging in the second chapter of the book titled “ The Modern Discovery of Primary Oral Cultures”.  In this section, Ong explores our understanding of orality by examining the mindset of the primary oral culture of ancient Greece.   He does this by discussing Millman Parry’s ground breaking literary analysis of Homeric Poetry.   Prior to Millman, “scholars and readers generally still tended to impute to primitive poetry qualities that their own age found fundamentally congenial “(Ong, 182, p 18).  In other words, these seminal artifacts of ancient oral culture were always seen through the biased lens of literate mindsets.  As a result, Homeric poems were given misguided adulation as “the most exemplary, the truest and the most inspired secular poems in the western heritage.”(Ong, 1982,  p. 18).  Millman, as Ong explains, proved otherwise.  By excavating the use of the hexameter line, Millman revealed that that the choice of words and word forms in Homeric poetry was dependent on the use of this hexameter form.  From there he went on to reveal an underlying cultural mindset embedded within these works.

Ong (1982) explains that “in the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer was normally taken to be fully accomplished, consummately skilled. Yet it now began to appear that he had had some kind of phrase book in his head. Careful study of the sort Milman Parry was doing showed that he repeated formula after formula.”(p.22)

The implications of this finding, according to Ong are significant.  These treasured exemplars of the western heritage were now seen to be products of  a culture dominated by formulaic thinking and clichés.

“…the entire oral noetic world or thought world relied upon the formulaic constitution of thought. In an oral culture, knowledge, once acquired, had to be constantly repeated or it would be lost: fixed, formulaic thought patterns were essential for wisdom and effective administration.”(Ong, 1982, p 23)

Millman’s focus on the use of the hexameter line proved to be a shrewd and insightful “Rosetta stone” into the underlying formulaic constitution of thought of oral Greek culture.  Ong goes on to extrapolate on these findings in the next chapter, outlining a series of characteristics associated with thought and expression in oral cultures calling them, for example, additive rather than subordinative and redundant or copious (Ong, 1982 p. 37-39).  The result is a plausible analysis that is complex and abstract.   Yet, throughout his analysis Ong also exposes remnants of another perspective on the nature of oral cultures.  Less abstract and more fundamental in approach, this ulterior perspective offers a model for further analysis and comes through in the ways Ong and Millman describe the Greek oral processes at work.

For example, Ong consistently uses a vocabulary of production to describe these oral processes. “How could any poetry that was so unabashedly formulary, so constituted of prefabricated parts… Homeric poems valued and somehow made capital of… the set phrase, the formula, the expected qualifier” (p. 23) and “Homer stitched together prefabricated parts.”(p.23) Ong alludes to a practice of economy taking place in Greek oral expression.  He portrays the Greeks as craftsman plying their oral trade through the skillful manipulation of their sound medium.  And he describes Homer as such, “Instead of a creator, you had an assembly-line worker.”(Ong, 1982, p. 22)  And herein, lies the more fundamental perspective beneath Ong’s analysis.  We are assembling words and in its most elemental form, a spoken word is a sound wave.  Sound waves are naturally occurring physically explainable resources in our world, like copper and water.  And when we learn, over many thousands of years, to craft these waves into useful sounds, we are simply pursuing a human need to use and exploit another resource in our world. “THE HUMAN domestication of sound in the form of speech has taken us farther than our mastery of fire or tools or any of our other conquests. (Burrows, 1990, p. 39)  Just as we’ve harnessed the qualities of water to make energy and copper to conduct electricity, so too have we effectively harnessed the qualities of sound to make language.   And so beneath Ong’s analysis there is a compelling, organic determinism that offers a lens in which to view Greek orality more directly.

Like the ancient Greeks, we are all assembly line workers harnessing an earthly resource:  the sound wave.   Ong identifies some of the qualities of the sound resource calling it evanescent and dynamic. (p. 32) But he pulls up short of hauling the sound resource fully out of the mine.  Issues around the relationship of the signal to its source, its relationship to the receiver, questions of distance and direction and temporality are left unexplored.  If he and Millman had explored the qualities of sound more deeply and examined it in the context of resource development, they would have arrived at a view of the Greek mindset more directly.   Harnessing our earthly sound resources imposed foreseeable conditions on oral Greek thinking.  For example, sound has limited storage qualities therefore oral formulas were logical ways to improve the storage capacity of their sound products.  The additive uses of “and” increased the efficiency of manufacturing sound products on the spot.  And copious, colorful details allowed Greeks to market their sound messages more effectively to distracted listeners.   Seeing through Ong’s complex analysis , this resource perspective lets us postulate about Greek orality more easily.

Perhaps less detailed and literature oriented than Ong’s analysis, this resource perspective on orality is also less abstract and offers a lens through which we can make logical postulations not only in the study of orality but  as a useful lens for exploring the development of other communication wave forms such as reflected light waves (text) and emitted light waves (digital forms).


Burrows, David. (1990). Sound, Speech and Music. University of Massachusetts
Press: Amherst, MA.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved 28 September, 2009 from:

Ong, W.(1982). Orality and Literacy. Routledge: London.

October 2, 2009   1 Comment

Closing the gap or re-wiring our brains? Maybe both!

Ong states that “the electronic transformation of verbal expression has both deepened the commitment of the word to space initiated by writing and intensified by print and has brought consciousness to a new age of secondary orality (p. 133).” Secondary orality is the way in which technology has transformed the medium through which we send and receive information. Ong includes various examples such as telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, and electronic technology (Ong, p. 132).

Ong discusses Lowry’s argument that the printing press, in creating the ability to mass-produce books, makes people less studious (Ong, p. 79).  Lowry continues by stating that “it destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work (the pocket‐computer complaint once more), downgrading the wise man and wise woman in favor of the pocket compendium.  Of course, others saw print as a welcome leveler: everyone becomes a wise man or woman (Lowry 1979, pp. 31‐2). (Ong, p. 79).”

The World Wide Web has opened up an entirely new sense of “secondary orality”. Prior to the WWW, texts were primarily written by one or a small group of authors and were read by a specific audience.  Today, with the advent of Web 2.0 the underlying tenets of oral cultures and literate cultures are coming closer together.  Even within ETEC540 we are communicating primarily by text, but we are not entering our own private reading world, we are entering a text-based medium through which we can read and respond to each other’s blog posts (such as this post). In addition, we will contribute to a class Wiki where the information is dynamic and constantly changing. How then, is the WWW changing the way we interpret, digest, and process information?

The Internet has brought about a new revolution in the distribution of text.  Google’s vision of having one library that contains all of the world’s literature demonstrates that “one significant change generates total change (Postman, p. 18).”  Nicholas Carr, in his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and Anthony Grafton in Paul Kennedy’s podcast “The Great Library 2.0” both make similar arguments about the Internet.  Carr points out, the medium through which we receive information not only provides information, but “they also shape the process of thought”.

Carr contends that the mind may now be absorbing and processing information “the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”  That is, information is no longer static; it is dynamic, ever changing, and easily accessible and searchable.  Carr gives the example that many of his friends and colleagues and friends in academia have noticed that “the more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.”

Comparably, Google’s attempt to digitize all the text on earth into a new “Alexandria” is certainly an ambitious project, but as Postman states, new technology “is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and that (Postman, 5).”  Some see the library as liberating, making an unfathomable amount of knowledge available to anyone with an Internet connection.  Others, such as Anthony Grafton, argue that reading text off the screen takes away from the romantic adventure that one gets from being the first to read at a rare book found in the library of a far-off country (Grafton in The Great Library 2.0).  Grafton also argues that the ability to search for key-words in electronic texts has created “on-time research” which has made academics and others work at a rapid pace, and fill in parts of work very late using Internet sources.  Carr sites other examples of academics who have lost the ability to read and absorb long texts, but instead have gained the ability to scan “short passages of text from many sources online.”

Lowry’s argument that, to some, print destroyed memory and debilitated the mind, while to others, print created equal accessibility to text has repeated itself with the advent of the Internet.  Carr and Grafton are both argue that instantaneous access to huge databases of information such as Google Books may be detracting from our ability to absorb texts.   That being said, Postman states “once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is-that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open (Postman, p. 7).”  Thus, perhaps there is no point in arguing the negatives.  Whether it is Google or a different association that makes all the printed text in world available to us, it is the direction that technology is taking us and there will likely be nothing to stop it.  The question is, what will our societies and cultures look like after it is all done?   It will not be the world plus Library 2.0, but an entirely new world.


Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Kennedy, Paul (host).  (August 24, 2009). Ideas. The Great Library 2.0. Podcast retrieved from

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Carr, Nicholas. (2008). Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Atlantic. July/August 2008. Accessed September 30, 2009 from

October 2, 2009   2 Comments