Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The nightmare of the Total Library

I have an article in Talis’ Panlibus magazine this month. You can read issue 22 here and I’m on pages 14 and 15. My thanks to the editor for accepting it and putting it out there.

The article is about the concept of a ‘Total Library’ and how this concept has been treated by literature and philosophy across the centuries from The Great Library of Alexandria to Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum to modern-day legal deposit libraries. It ends by pointing to the Universal Library’s ghostly electronic shadow, the National Digital Library, as the next development and practical embodiment of the Total Library ideal. Basically this piece combines the concept of a Universal Library, the dream of a National Digital Library, my love of Borges, and the idea of the infinite: all topics that I am obsessed with interested in and have written about before.

Though this article exclusively discusses the dream of a Total Library, my original concept for the piece was to present both sides of the idea: dream and nightmare. It would have discussed both the positive aspects of the idea followed by the negative aspects leaving the reader to decide whether the Total Library is paradiso or inferno. For Borges, the Total Library is both dream and nightmare, everything and nothing: “Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’ The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon … the complete catalog of the Library, the proof of the inaccuracy of that catalog. Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings. Everything: but all the generations of mankind could pass before the dizzying shelves – shelves that obliterate the day and on which chaos lies – ever reward them with a tolerable page.”  (1)

So I gathered and wrote a lot of material that, for reasons of space and word count, I had to cut. Here is the counter-argument to my own argument in Panlibus (make sure you read the Panlibus article first otherwise this won't make much sense) – the idea of the Total Library as a nightmare:

The Total Library is nothing: a nightmare of meaningless promise.

The Total Library represents all that we cannot be: the idea taunts us with promises of infinity, calling to us like the Sirens leading us to wreckage and madness upon the shoals of deadly knowledge. As well as the sheer shuddering horror of the misprints and contradictions throughout the Logically Complete Library, the Universal Library is ultimately useless to us and reveals in itself a void of meaning. In acquiring everything, the Total Library reveals nothing.

The paralysis of choice inside the Universal Library is unrelenting. With literally every printed word at one’s disposal, where could one possibly begin? The Universal Library offers a taunting glimpse at everything that we do not and cannot possibly know. Even the polymath – a dying breed – can only know a percentage of all there is to know. Even if we constructed the Universal Library – the written mirror of the universe replete with every theory, every manifestation of idea, every supposition and every contradiction – there is not a single person who could understand it. Standing at the threshold of the Universal Library, we feel the pull of everything, of the infinite, while knowing that it will never be ours: as finite beings, the mysteries of the universe are forever inaccessible to us. There is not one person who could gaze long into that abyss without losing themselves.

As finite beings, we bestow meaning through selection. A random cluster of objects is meaningless but if the same objects are carefully chosen and ordered, they are given a meaning comprehensible to at least the person who chose them. The books on our bookshelves mean more to us than the books in the library because we have chosen each one individually. By collecting everything without discrimination or selection, the Universal Library becomes as meaningless as the universe itself: the model offers us nothing that the subject itself cannot give.

Even today, as we flounder in the ocean of ‘information overload’, we look to libraries as respite, as carefully ordered sanctuaries from the chaotic miasma of unordered data on the Web. Kruk is correct that librarians filter, select, choose, and present. To have meaning a library must be carefully chosen and constructed to meet the user’s needs: “We may discover that in times when a former relative scarcity of information is being replaced by indiscriminate over-abundance, the selective or filtering function of libraries is more important than providing indiscriminate access to information. What was a dream of humanity may be a nightmare. The ceaseless torrent of words hinders understanding.”  (2)

In the Universal Library, secret choices have already been made. For one, the primacy of the written word. By collecting only books and printed texts, the library has made a choice and has artificially limited itself. Why only collect published books and articles? The greatest work of literature could be written on the back of a bar napkin. Why not include ephemera? Why not what librarians refer to as ‘realia’: physical objects, gifts, tools, flags, clothes, that one special shirt, the present she sent you, the watch you no longer wear? “Every library both embraces and rejects. Every library is by definition the result of choice, and necessarily limited in its scope. And every choice excludes another, the choice not made. The act of reading parallels endlessly the act of censorship.” (3)

The primacy of the written word is a cultural prejudice reflected by the composition of the Universal Library. On close examination, words reveal themselves to be utterly inadequate as a mirror of the universe. The key Anglo-European philosophical project at the start of the 20th Century was the construction of a perfect language. The cloistered men of Cambridge attempted this by refining formal logic. Heroes and knights errant like Hilbert, Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein set out to create a model of the universe using the elegant, simple notation of mathematics. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein constructed his perfect description of the universe; in the Philosophical Investigations published years later, he exposed the impossibility of any logically perfect language. For all their trials, the philosophers could not make language perfect. The written word is an arbitrary, brute system: as Death says in a Terry Pratchett short story, humans try “TO UNDERSTAND THE COMPLEXITIES OF CREATION VIA A LANGUAGE THAT EVOLVED IN ORDER TO TELL ONE ANOTHER WHERE THE RIPE FRUIT WAS” (4). How could the arbitrary sounds we make and commit to paper through arcane symbolism possibly capture the infinite?

The Universal Library is utterly without meaning. When we gather every book, every word ever written, what is it that we’ve captured? In ‘A Yellow Rose’, Borges depicts the death of the poet Giambattista Marino who, as his life ebbs away, looks upon a yellow rose: “Marino saw the rose, the way Adam must have seen it in Paradise. He sensed that it existed not in his words but in its own timelessness. He understood that we can utter and allude to things but not give them expression, that the proud tall volumes that made a golden shadow in the corner of his room were not the world’s mirror, as his vanity had figured, but simply other objects that had been added to the world.”  (5)

Books are objects like any other with no more meaning or dignity than that which humans bestow. The Universal Library is an expansive collection but its perfection is an illusion. With no-one to understand the model it creates, it has no more meaning than a warehouse of yellow roses. Without the minds to understand them, books are useless assemblages of paper and the model of the universe that they purportedly create is a sham. In another Borges story, an ancient order of cartographers set out to create a perfect map of the Empire. They find they can do this only by making the map successively larger and more detailed until eventually it encompasses the whole Empire. “The world encyclopedia, the universal library, exists, and is the world itself.” (6)

(1) Jorge Luis Borges. “The Total Library,” in Jorge Luis Borges (Eliot Weinberger, ed.), The total library: non-fiction 1922-1986 (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 216.

(2) Miroslav Kruk, “The Internet and the revival of the myth of the universal library,” Australian library journal, 48 (2).

(3) Alberto Manguel, The library at night (London: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 108.

(4) Terry Pratchett, “Death and What Comes Next”. 

(5) Jorge Luis Borges, “A Yellow Rose,” in Jorge Luis Borges (Alexander Coleman, ed.), Selected poems (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 77.

(6) Manguel, Library at night, p. 89.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Freedom of speech 2.0

Yesterday, a fellow library campaigner directed me to this blog post by Roger Pearse criticising the Suffolk public library service. The main thrust of his argument has some validity: if his story is accurate, then the library in question needs to modernise and make efficiency changes. There are many libraries that need to make changes: I do not campaign for libraries because I believe they are all perfect; I campaign for libraries because I believe that good libraries have superlative value and that even bad libraries have potential. There’s an interesting debate to be had about whether bad libraries are caused by library managers, overhead council intervention, or simple budgetary concerns. 

Unfortunately, Mr. Pearse’s valid concerns about his public library service were drowned out by the following statement and his subsequent response when challenged about it:

And so it went on.  Item after item of inefficiency, maladministration, neglect or wrong-headedness.  In real terms, there was nobody in charge.  Doubtless there is some woman somewhere who receives a salary to run the organisation.  (You can tell that it is a woman in charge because the conversion of Ipswich library into a playgroup is something that only a woman would do). 

This throw-away comment is not the core of Mr. Pearse’s argument but it is offensively sexist and exclusionary (as are similar comments about children’s groups in libraries). It’s a statement that, since he made it freely and of his own accord, he should either defend or retract. 

You can always just pepper-spray people with whom you don't agree.
Freedom of speech is a tricky concept. It’s essential to a functioning democracy and very important for equality of all people. Everyone has the absolute right to express what they believe: Mr. Pearse has the right to make negative comments about women and the corollary of this is that people who disagree with him have the right to challenge him. 

Or rather, should have the right to challenge him. After several people commented on his blog about his sexist statement, these comments were deleted and labelled as “abusive”. Which accords with my own opinion that the only limitation to freedom of expression is the Harm Principle: the only circumstances in which it is permissible to censor or otherwise prevent someone expressing him/herself is if their expression causes or will cause harm to another person. The classic example is someone shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. Where I disagree with Mr. Pearse – and where the Harm Principle falls down – is in defining the vague concept of ‘harm’. What exactly is harm? Can it be quantified? Can there be any objective measure of harm?

Mr. Pearse has since written another post about his experience of “political thuggery” and his conception of free speech. He’s included several comments – including my own – as evidence of trolling. I seem to be included in the category of commenters “pretend[ing] to be polite.” I’m also accused of ad hominem attack (which is a false accusation since I’m attacking a point (a non-substantive point admittedly) that he made in the piece rather than Mr. Pearse himself). He characterises the level of debate as “deliberate violence, intended to give pain…” Ian Clark (unable to respond directly to Mr. Pearse for fears of deletion) has responded here and I encourage you to read it particularly the last paragraph.

Now maybe I have a laissez-faire ‘sticks-and-stones’ attitude but apart from direct threats or intimidation, I would not consider any other kind of speech as causing harm under the Harm Principle. I have been blogging on this site which is open to comments for several years and have received numerous comments disagreeing with me. I have never deleted any of them. This is not a diary: it's a blog and as such it operates under a different paradigm of communication. Under a definition of ‘trolling’ as irrational attacks against a person or argument on the Web, I wouldn’t define any of the comments on my blog as trolling. Some of these comments have hurt my feelings, some have made me feel bad, and, most importantly, some have made me rethink my position. There’s a comment on this post about a symbol of philosophical logic that calls me a moron. That comment made me angry enough to do some research and discover that, annoying though it may be, the commenter is right and I was wrong. When I check my blog’s statistics, I’m frequently annoyed that this post denying human-induced climate change gets consistently high traffic: I now fully retract that post but I will not delete it however wrong it is. It's true that I have censored some blog posts in the past but only at the request of an external party (this censorship and secretive attitude towards information is part of the reason why I no longer work for the external party). 

Required by law to be included in any writing about Web discussions.
Ultimately my attitude to freedom of speech derives from the fact that I don’t believe I have the right to delete something that someone spent precious time writing down. I don’t believe anyone has that right (unless as mentioned it harms others which I don’t believe the comments on Mr. Pearse’s sexism do). John Stuart Mill expressed it wonderfully in a passage from On Liberty that I return to time and time again:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Roger Pearse is free to make whatever statements he wants. In exchange for that freedom, I think he should allow other people the same right.