Farewell to Fixity: The Virtual Library Fantasy

In “The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed,” cultural historian James J. O’Donnell challenged the ideal of a virtual library. The present-day version of this ideal – a universal, digital library that includes all the world’s literature from antiquity to present day, freely accessible to all from an Internet-enabled device – has much to commend. It would be a utopia of libraries. If the fundamental purpose of a library is to extend access to information, the ideal universal digital library would be the apex of access, both in terms of resources available, and in terms of the numbers of people who would be able to access these resources.

The Fantasy of the Universal Library

Tracing the history of the universal library ideal back to Alexandria, O’Donnell nevertheless claimed that the true origins of the modern-day virtual library “fantasy” lie in a change of attitude to text that occurred around the 5th century A.D. Those with power sought to affirm and extend it through the imposed authority of text. People began to depend on texts as arbiters of truth, and the resultant collection and maintenance of great numbers of texts began the tradition that extends to today’s libraries.

The fantasy is that somehow, in these great collections of truth and knowledge, we can gather all of humanity’s intellectual output together in a universal location or access point. With the exponentially growing numbers of texts freely available in digital format on the Internet, and the continually increasing percentage of the world’s population online – 37% in 2011 (Internet) – the fantasy of “total inclusiveness” (O’Donnell) grew.

A Fading Ideal of Fixed Authenticity

The question is not whether such a fantasy is good or bad. From an educated, Western perspective, greater access is good, generally speaking. However, such total inclusivity has never been and will never be possible. Anthony Grafton wrote: “The supposed universal library, then, will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money.” Even this description is overly optimistic. The patchwork can never gather all, across cultures and languages, over time – too much has already been lost, and digital obsolescence threatens much of what is to come. The idea O’Donnell challenged is that this is a fantasy that will continue to hold sway in our society – “the idea that the totality of our culture can in some way be incorporated in a library is precisely what will disappear” – which predicts a major shift in the way we think.

O’Donnell wrote, “Now, fixity is to our eyes the only satisfactory guarantee of authenticity, but fixity brings with it rapid obsolescence.” Wikipedia is an example of how our ideas of fixed authenticity are changing. Articles in Wikipedia are in constant flux, and are written and edited by multiple people, authorities none. Its great value lies in this very lack of authority and fixity. Wikipedia changes to keep up with currently accepted ideas and priorities. Looking up a topic in Wikipedia gives you a quick “state of the union” overview. It is like the storyteller of traditional oral cultures, constantly changing the “story” being told to suit the changing beliefs or interests of the people. When we lose the idea of fixity of text, the idea of textual authority goes along with it.

To Altered Authenticity

In his influential book Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong listed the characteristics of traditional oral cultures. One of these characteristics is “homeostasis” (46). Ong wrote that oral traditions always reflect a society’s present values; the storekeepers of knowledge (storytellers, wise men) forget things that are no longer relevant. Traditional stories, rituals, and legends are used to justify what currently matters to society, and may be altered in order to be more effective in this way. I believe that Wikipedia represents an increasing homeostatic tendency in our culture, and is perhaps a good example of Ong’s concept of “secondary orality” (133) – the emergence of oral culture characteristics on top of our digitally literate society.

Google searches also reinforce (or illustrate) homeostasis. The Google PageRank algorithm orders our web search results partially based on the PageRank value of each web page. PageRank is determined by “the number and PageRank metric” (“PageRank”) of all pages that link to it, i.e. popularity. Pages that are currently relevant to lots of people will have many more pages that link to it than those that are less popular. PageRank in turn reinforces the page’s popularity, and irrelevant web pages are destined to be sloughed off the end of the search results list, and into oblivion (see Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything).

The Long Tail

As our culture seeks total inclusiveness and textual authority less and less, the information we seek on the Internet increasingly reflects our own perspectives and biases (or is it vice versa?).  This trend is aided by Google search preferences that try to predict what we are looking for based on our past searches (Vaidhyanathan) – another illustration of the emergence of an oral culture characteristic in digital culture: information is situational and contextual rather than general.

Traditional libraries serve literate societies. What kind of libraries will serve the digital, post-literate society? What idea of a library will replace the idea of a universal, virtual library? I think the answer lies in a focus on smaller, specialized collections, local expertise, and community engagement. Huge digital libraries are still gathering steam, and will never go away. Indeed, they are part of the new normal, part of the landscape. In the future they may no longer be thought of as libraries. Farewell to fixity, the very idea of a library is in flux.

Works Cited

Grafton, Anthony. “Future Reading: Digitization and its Discontents.” New Yorker n.p., 5 Nov. 2007. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

 Internet World Stats. n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm>

O’Donnell, James J.  n.d. “The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed.”<http://web.archive.org/web/20070204034556/http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/virtual.html>

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 2002. E-book.

“PageRank.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. E-book.

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