Friday, May 25, 2012

Why We Need Libraries, Or, Memory and Knowledge

"Writing is thinking in slow motion. We see what at normal speeds escapes us, can rerun the reel at will to look for errors, erase, interpolate, and rethink. Most thoughts are a light rain, fall upon the ground, and dry up. Occasionally they become a stream that runs a short distance before it disappears. Writing stands an incomparably better chance of getting somewhere.

"... What is written can be given endlessly and yet retained, read by thousands even while it is being rewritten, kept as it was and revised at the same time. Writing is magic." 
Walter Kaufmann

We are able to know things because they happen again and again. We know about the sun because it glares down on us day after day. Scientists learn the laws of nature, and build confidence in their knowledge, by testing their theories over and over and getting the same results each time. We would be unable to learn the patterns and ways of our world if nothing were repeatable.

But without memory, we could learn nothing even if the world were tediously repetitive. Even though the sun rises daily in the east, we could not know this if we couldn't remember it.

The world has stable patterns, and we are able to discover these patterns because we remember. Knowledge requires more than memory, but memory is an essential element.

The invention of writing was a great boon to knowledge because writing is collective memory. For instance, the Peloponnesian wars are known to us through Thucydides' writings. People understand themselves and their societies in part through knowing their history. History, as distinct from pre-history, depends on the written word. For example, each year at the Passover holiday, Jewish families through the ages have read the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. We are enjoined to see ourselves as though we were there, fleeing Egypt and trudging through the desert. Memory, recorded for all time, creates individual and collective awareness, and motivates aspirations and actions.

Without writing, much collective memory would be lost, just as books themselves are sometimes lost. We know, for instance, that Euclid wrote a book called Porisms, but the book is lost and we know next to nothing about its message. Memory, and knowledge, have been lost.

Memory can be uncertain. We've all experienced that on the personal level. Collective memory can also be uncertain. We're sometimes uncertain of the meaning of rare ancient words, such as lilit in Isaiah (34:14) or gvina in Job (10:10). Written traditions, while containing an element of truth, may be of uncertain meaning or veracity. For instance, we know a good deal, both from the Bible and from archeological findings, about Hezekiah who ruled the kingdom of Judea in the late 8th century BCE. About David, three centuries earlier, we can be much less certain. Biblical stories are told in great detail but corroboration is hard to obtain.

Memory can be deliberately corrupted. Records of history can be embellished or prettified, as when a king commissions the chronicling of his achievements. Ancient monuments glorifying imperial conquests are invaluable sources of knowledge of past ages, but they are unreliable and must be interpreted cautiously. Records of purported events that never occurred can be maliciously fabricated. For instance, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is pure invention, though that book has been re-published voluminously throughout the world and continues to be taken seriously by many people. Memory is alive and very real, even if it is memory of things that never happened.

Libraries are the physical medium of human collective memory, and an essential element in maintaining and enlarging our knowledge. There are many types of libraries. The family library may have a few hundred books, while the library of Congress has 1,349 km of bookshelves and holds about 147 million items. Libraries can hold paper books or digital electronic documents. Paper can perish in fire as happened to the Alexandrian library, while digital media can be erased, or become damaged and unreadable. Libraries, like memory itself, are fragile and need care.

Why do we need libraries? Being human means, among other things, the capacity for knowledge, and the ability to appreciate and benefit from it. The written record is a public good, like the fresh air. I can read Confucius or Isaiah centuries after they lived, and my reading does not consume them. Our collective memory is part of each individual, and preserving that memory preserves a part of each of us. Without memory, we are without knowledge. Without knowledge, we are only another animal.

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