William Palmer

Losing the Past

The living past exists only in our memories and our records. Our own memories are faulty and short-lived; but the recording of ideas and events has created an enormous communal memory store that we can all consult and learn from. Ah, you mean the Internet? Not quite. By far the greatest source of knowledge of our past is contained in the libraries of the world, which will soon face a huge and possibly fatal challenge. They are not under direct threat yet, but a new generation of librarians and managers wishes to replace what they see as static and outmoded sources of knowledge, ie books, with the flow of information available on the Internet. As Thomas Mann, author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research, points out, the trouble with this is that library resources ‘allow avenues of subject access that cannot be matched by “relevance ranked” keyword searching’ and that ‘the Internet does not and cannot contain more than a small fraction of everything discoverable within library walls’. Some surprisingly famous libraries are selling or dumping older books and ‘preserving’ others, if at all, only electronically. Given the fallibility and short-lived viability of software programs and computer systems, this process could make the destruction of the library at Alexandria look like a garden bonfire.

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