Current Issue

Jan.28, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 7


A new chapter for libraries

Humanists ponder what will become of libraries in the digital age

By Merrell Noden ’78
Published in the January28, 2009, issue

Stanley N. Katz
Frank Wojciechowski
Stanley N. Katz

Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83 is a leader of the team planning the Firestone renovation. He’s also a legal scholar, and he’s seen how digitization has changed the field. “I can’t remember the last time I looked at a journal article in hard copy,” he says. “Probably one of my own, when the publisher sent me a free copy!”

Eisgruber is among the last generation of lawyers to be trained using the old West Key Number System, which grouped case law into rigid categories and limited the connections lawyers could make between different fields. But electronic searches have changed that dramatically, opening up fruitful new ways to think about the law. “It means you can draw links between cases that couldn’t have been drawn under the old system,” says Eisgruber, who also points out that there are many empirical questions that legal scholars now can ask because they have a reasonable expectation of finding an answer — like patterns in decision-making by judges.

Katz allows that all this digitization will not lessen the need for the hard thinking that inevitably follows the manipulation of data. “A lot of this is the capacity to utilize information, and the information was always there,” Katz says, noting that digitization has made it possible for whole new fields to emerge. “Think of computational linguistics. We have learned incredible things by dumping huge amounts of text into computers and analyzing the text.” He also considers the many ways in which digital technology can allow scholars to compare data sets and apply them to maps — much as atlases used onion-skin overlays to illustrate changing conditions like the migration of tribes, the spread of plagues, or the reach of glaciers in different geological periods. With geographical information system (GIS) databases, detailed re-creations of a landscape and its shifting human, vegetable, and geological presences make this sort of geographic modeling sophisticated and thorough. “You could re-create digitally the east coast of North America from the beginning of recorded time until today, plugging in information about climate, population, geological changes, wildlife migration, human records,” says Katz. “Well, think about that: We could figure things out that we simply couldn’t do before. That’s what I call a real intellectual breakthrough.”

None of this, Katz points out, necessarily is a library function — at least in the way we once conceived of libraries. These things could be done in a technology center or in rooms devoted to technology in different departments. But Katz sees the digital learning centers of the future as the most logical venues for this sort of intellectual activity to take place, offering computer power and collaborative workspaces where scholars from different fields can exchange ideas. “These are toys that really smart people can do very interesting things with,” says Katz, who sees libraries as the logical site for a broader reorganization — really, a reimagination — of the musty old academic departments of yore, like “English” or “History.” The most ambitious work, Katz believes, will leap right over the old, confining categories and create new and richer fields.

“We’ve got to create a building without walls that really is something like a Princeton Google campus where we let the students play with the toys and figure out what they want to do,” says Katz. “That playground needs to have the machinery, but more importantly it needs to have the playmates, who are librarian technologists, and it has to be welcoming to all three [kinds of users] — faculty, undergraduates, and grad students.”

This is just the beginning of a bigger shift toward what Cohen calls the “active library,” one that actually reaches out to scholars with recommendations and alerts them to useful publications. Some universities, he says, are experimenting with notifying faculty members when books they might be interested in come into the stacks. Think of the recommendations provided to customers by If you like book A, we think you’ll like book B.

For Katz, there is another challenge to designing libraries in a digital age, one that hearkens back to all those warm and fuzzy joys we experienced in the libraries of childhood: “To what extent can we reinvent — do we need to reinvent — the social function of the physical library?” he muses. Despite dire predictions that in a digital era, students would turn their backs on libraries and read only on their laptops, Princeton undergraduates still flock to Firestone — drawn, it seems, by some deep need, perhaps simply for quiet, perhaps to be close to all that magnificent human striving. However quick and comfortable reading devices become in the future, there is some larger way in which libraries still need to embody our respect for the accumulated wisdom of the past.

During his undergraduate years at Yale, Wulfman developed a kind of ritual to help him savor that other, more mystical meaning of libraries. Upon finishing his last exam, he’d go to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library where, in a huge glass case, a tall column of rare books is displayed. The rumor on campus was that those books sat upon an elevator; in the event of a disaster they would descend into a vault, where they’d be preserved. Wulfman would sit and contemplate that great tower of books, savoring all that accumulated human aspiration and knowledge.

“How do we preserve that in the virtual world?” wonders Wulfman. “How do we get a sense of the totality of knowledge in a visceral way? That is something that designers of libraries are going to have to think about.”

Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent PAW contributor.

Post Comments
2 Responses to A new chapter for libraries

Norman Gilbert '52 Says:

2009-02-05 09:13:23

Extremely interesting article! Very much appreciated!

Jeffrey Scherre, FAIA Says:

2009-02-09 11:14:25

Wonderfully written and cogent article. It is like the collision of Nicholas Basbanes "A Splendor of Letters" and Neil Postman's "Technopoly." I have posted a link on our library blog:
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