The future of libraries

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This article in the New Republic by Lisbet Rausing takes a look at the future of libraries and knowledge and the obstacles preventing scholarly knowledge and research from reaching the wider public over the web. I’ll just selectively quote below. The whole article is worth the read.

Look at JSTOR (if you can). There you find the evidence-based, source-critical foundations of sociology, anthropology, geography, history, philosophy, classics, Oriental studies, theology, musicology, history of science and so on. They are all closed to the public. It is wonderful, of course, that high-energy physics and string theory are open to all. But is it not ironic that we have opened the gates only to that scholarship which few professors, let alone members of the public, have the cognitive capacity and appropriate training to grasp?

The opportunity costs for society are self-evident. But what about the opportunity cost for scholars? For example, the public has set itself the task to rewrite knowledge for the public domain through Wikipedia and the like. Should not these sites be hyperlinked with JSTOR? By excluding the public from their scholarly literature, academics make it impossible for amateurs to use sound research methodologies, critically examining evidence by cross-referencing and source analysis. Scholars then critique the public’s output for not being sufficiently academic. Academics commonly refer to the occasionally wobbly scholarly standards of Wikipedia as proof the public does not wish to pursue scholarship. Might it not instead prove that they do not let them?

Forget, for the moment, about the morality of thus adding insult to injury. Consider instead the downside for the universities. Does not the professoriate take a reputational risk? After all, the web-tech community is working on how to verify information on the Web, or as they put it, “engineering layers of trust and provenance.” In the longer term, the question is not whether the Web will be scholarly in some perfectly meaningful sense. It is whether traditional twentieth-century scholarship in the humanities and the social sciences will be integrated into that emerging, increasingly cross-referenced and even more scholarly world of the web. Or will what James Boyle has nicely termed our cultural agoraphoria—our undue skepticism of open networks—lead the universities to become bystanders in the new worlds of open-access knowledge?

If scholars continue to hide away and lock up their knowledge, do they not risk their own irrelevance? An immediately important debate, I think, is to be had over how academics fail to engage with their natural constituency (and former students): journalists, business leaders, lawyers, entrepreneurs, politicians, and civil servants. These people are the ruling classes, if you would like. They are the ones who house and feed professors. Is it really in academics’ long-term interest to not let these well-educated and well-intentioned people as much as glance at, say, the Index of Christian Art? Is it really in their interest not to show the public their scholarly articles and academic monographs? What does this tell the public about who academics think is clubbable? And how will that affect how the public thinks about, say, federal research grants, or top-up fees?

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