iii.i Marija Dalbello and the ‘digital convergence’
A very different library history from the ones we have been talking about is presented by Marija Dalbello in her article Digital Convergence: The past in the present, which is also the last chapter of a 2015 book edited by her, along with Wayne Wiegand and Pamela Richards entitled A History of modern librarianship: Constructing the heritage of Western Cultures. The book presents a ‘cross-national dimensions of librarianship in the context of modernity’, and Dalbello’s last chapter aims to provide a history of librarianship’s digital convergences of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.
Dalbello characterises the digital convergence as ‘a series of innovations that are bringing about an increasingly interconnected world of recorded knowledge, documents, data, and information’, with a history ‘nested within a larger history of scholarly and scientific communication, bibliographic systematisation, provision of free and universal access to public information, the world of knowledge dominated by scientific methods, and the authority of professional experts’. Couldn’t this ‘larger history’ that she refers to simply be library history? I understand her inquiry as: how to understand the many uses of digital computing within the framework of library history? I’m not sure I like the idea of ‘convergence’ very much, because we then risk looking at phenomena from the past as making part of a process (‘convergence’) that would be century-old by now, as if people back there were working with the same objectives as we today are. Anyway, her history is compelling as it connects library history to information science (perhaps, information science within library history?) in the context of modernity. Her point:
The convergence of information technology, bibliographic control, and networking constitute an important element in the development of the digital environment that heavily influences how many people use libraries today.
She follows a chronological narrative in the structure of her article: Origins and prototypes, 1890 – 1960s, including Otlet and La Fontaine’s Mundaneum, and the development of the Dewey Decimal Classification and the Universal Decimal Classification; Online catalogs and the World Wide Web, 1970s into the 1990s; Digital libraries: mid-1990s to 2005; and The ‘semantic web’ and social media from 2005, including the ascendance of the digital humanities and large-scale collaboration projects of digitisation.
Despite my reservations with regards to the idea of ‘convergence’, I find this approach to library history fascinating: it fits Information Science inside the broader, cultural framework of modernity, conferring some social perspective to this subject often considered technical and neutral. Dalbello’s article proves that library history can express itself in a multitude of ways.
iii.ii library history for public libraries
One challenge concerning digital library history, if I may call Dalbello’s fine work that way, is the risk of reducing library history to ‘the development of technical practices and procedures for information organisation’, or something like that, if we forget the value of library history as proclaimed by Shera and the importance of culture to library history.
Also, something revealing we get from when library history starts talking about digital information technology developments is that it stops talking about places and spaces; suddenly, no more descriptions of shelves and stacks, no more reading rooms, the people coming and going, no more where it was, how long they stayed, what was where. With the digital, materiality becomes insignificant and so does place/space.
Materiality & space are much more expensive than computer storage. That’s one of the main arguments for public library funding cuts: there’s just a cheaper version now. But people know the value of the materiality of the book and of the people you share a space with in a public library. This knowledge is not measurable through any quantitative tool available. And even harder: each person knows in an unique way, based in her very particular experience. As Wiegand explained in his Part of our lives: ‘Assessing what happens in library places does not easily fit into statistical taxonomies documenting library use, yet anecdotes demonstrate that public libraries help build community in multiple ways’.
Anecdotes. Stories, personal experiences and narratives: they characterise the value people see in public libraries. It is fundamental that we work to document and publicise these narratives as library history.
Richards, P., Wiegand, W., Dalbello, M. (eds.), 2015. A history of modern librarianship: constructing the heritage of western cultures, Libraries Unlimited, An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC: Denver; Santa Barbara.
Wiegand, W., 2015. Part of our lives: a people’s history of the American public library. Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.