I’m no fan of Jorge Luis Borges. I’m sure he’s great, I just don’t like the claustrophobic feeling his writing brings on.
I’m referring particularly to La biblioteca de Babel, a short story about an endless library with infinite numbers of volumes, most of which are full of incomprehensible gibberish. It’s quite nightmarish.
It’s also a fitting warning, a dark vision of what libraries can become if we let them turn into jungles growing violently out of control, rather than carefully pruned gardens. I thought of that the other day as I went on a guided tour of the KTH library.
Now the KTH library is one of the most beautiful building I know of. Entering it I’m always overtaken with a feeling of sacredness, not unlike the sentiment brought on by setting foot in a medieval cathedral.
As beautiful as the building is however, it’s really just a shell. What defines a library—any library—is always going to be its collection of books. And the KTH library sure does have a lot of great ones, but at closer inspection you start noticing the same pattern that’s apparent in all libraries: an overwhelming majority of the books are old. The odd new edition becomes the exception that proves the rule; the collection as a whole feels a lot like an aging population where nativity rate is falling sharply.
There’s no villain with a secret agenda behind this phenomenon. What’s causing it is plain as day: For every year that passes more titles than ever before are being published. To keep up with that, libraries are abandoning print in favor of digital.
Makes perfect sense. The problem with this trend, is that the library endangers its own right to exist.
Because really what’s the point of going to the library, if you can just as well access its resources online? Indeed what’s a library even going to *be*, more than just another web page?
I think it’s no coincident that Borges was a librarian by trade. In fact he was the director of the National Public Library of Argentina. As such, he would have had ample time to think about the future of the institution. I find him very *prescient*. If you have to look up that word, like I did, it means “having the ability to know things or events before they exist or happen“.
Here’s what I mean by that: La biblioteca de Babel is claustrophobic because it hits a nerve, it feels very familiar to anyone who ever suffered from information overload. Because the problem with Borges’ endless library isn’t that it lacks great books, it’s that those books are impossible to find in the sea of books that make no sense.
Of course a century after Borges was born, humanity was gifted with the Internet, which obviously has a lot in common with the library of Babel.
So why isn’t the Internet claustrophobic, too?
Well, I guess it has to do with the extent to which something is true to its nature.
As in: the Internet never pretended to be coherent or curated. It’s proud to be a jungle and as such it’s making a valuable contribution. We’ve learned to handle it, to embrace its chaos, to find tools that help us using it to our advantage.
The direction libraries are heading is different, in that it’s antithetical to the whole idea of what a library should be. And in case you had to look up that word—again like I had to—antithetical means: “to be directly opposed or contrasted; mutually incompatible”.
Because libraries were never meant to contain all information that exists in the world. That would be a fools errand. Instead it’s meant to help us make sense of the world. As Herb Simon pointed out half a century ago, humans are symbolic manipulators, symbol processing units that make sense of the world by telling stories about it.
The way a library tells stories is by curating its collection. As in mindfully acquiring a catalogue of titles that makes some kind of sense just from the sheer fact that they sit together on the same shelves. They tell a story.
I had a wonderful example of this happen recently when I stumbled over Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ memoir Small Fry, which tells the story of growing up with Steve Jobs as a less than adequate dad. It sat right next to Walter Isaacson’s biography of the famous entrepreneur. And it didn’t sit there by coincidence, it sa there for the excellent reason that a mindful librarian had put it exactly there.
I suppose theoretically this type of curated serendipity could happen online too, but it rarely does. On the contrary; while browsing is a word we’ve come to connect to the digital domain, physical space is really far superior if you want to wonder aimlessly and open yourself up for surprises. This isn’t just true for libraries by the way. While browsing for antiquities online can sometimes work, it always fail to produce the kind of happy fortuity that often occur when visiting an actual auction house.
The disruptive reorientation from print to digital is not the only culprit, however. There’s also an epistemological crisis going on, and it’s most evident in the evolution of classification.
Here’s what I mean by that: The collection that formed the basis of the KTH library consisted of some 800 titles. These were crudely classified into categories such as [Ua: Sockerbageri och syltning], [Ub: Kaffe och The], [Uc: Socker- och Stärkelse, tillvärkning], and so on and so forth up until [Td: Djurafvel jemte Skadedjursutrotande].
The classification scheme attests to a conveniently coherent little universe, one where each new book could naturally find its place, probably modeled closely on the courses that were offered at the university. Courses that must have seemed to represent “everything there is to know”.
By contrast, the Dewey Decimal system, which is the dominant classification scheme in libraries all over the world today, is no longer arranged by subject but instead by discipline.
That means a topic like clothing is classed based on its disciplinary treatment. For example, you’ll find anything to do with [psychological influence of clothing] on one shelf (labeled 155.95), whereas [customs associated with clothing] sits somewhere else entirely (on a shelf labeled 391), and books about [fashion design of clothing] again in a totally different part of the library (at shelf 746.92, if you must know).
Seems complicated? You have no idea. Let’s just say there’s good reason why it takes five years at university to school a librarian.
And if we’re in a pickle now it’s likely to get worse from here on out, given the exponential growth in scientific literature. In fact its total bulk doubles every twelve years. Which means that of all scientific work ever produced, half of it has been produced in the last twelve years. How on earth are we ever going to be able to make sense of that?!
One take on this epistemological crisis, is that we’re wrong in even trying to find the perfect classification scheme. Human knowledge—and especially engineering knowledge—seem to be splintering off into ever more narrow niches, but in reality this might be cognitive crutch, a conceptualization which help us feel in control, but performs poorly if what we’re after is to mirror the true nature of the world.
Historian of technology and proponent of systems theory Thomas P. Hughes seemed to have been of this opinion, claiming that: “a major failing of engineering education and practice today is their failure to accept complexity, ambiguity, and contradictions. The rigid rationality of engineering today verges on the tragic.”
If you buy into this narrative, where would it lead in terms of thinking about the future of libraries?
I think it could lead to a radical break with tradition; a pivot in startup parlance.
I like to think of future libraries as places where we don’t go because we want to find what we’re looking for—that’s always just going to be a web search away, after all, but instead to be inspired and surprised.
I like to think books about psychological influence of clothing are going to find their way back to the same shelf as books about fashion design of clothing, just like Lisa Brennan-Jobs critical memoir already sit next to Great man hagiographies.
It’ll be a place for curated serendipity. I think it’ll be quite wonderful.
It’s also part of a series of posts inspired by the excellent course Stockholms Teknikhistoria, where other entries include Making Belief : A Brief History of World Expos, Atomic Swing : A Brief History of the Shifting Swedish Nuclear Policy, and Things I Didn’t Know About KTH.