- The TransomIn Hoc Gizmo Vinces
Whenever cognoscenti inform me that the Digital Revolution is only just beginning, neurons fire and I recall a scene from Norman Jewison's futuristic film Rollerball, wherein the protagonist visits the world's ultimate library in search of answers to some questions. There are no books in the library. There is only a computer, a huge liquid thing in which all the information in the world bubbles like sauce on a stove. The head librarian is an elderly man who is wholly preoccupied with the apparently malfunctioning gizmo. It has managed somehow to lose the entire thirteenth century. All of it is gone, quite possibly forever. The old librarian remarks with a shrug that the thirteenth wasn't really much of a century, but nevertheless . . . The protagonist, his presence ignored, departs with questions unanswered.
Jewison's film appeared in 1975, the same year in which Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft and a year before Steve Jobs co-founded Apple. Twenty-seven years later, Gates and Jobs were billionaires, and John McTiernan's remake of Rollerball contained no reference to books, libraries, or the loss of a century. There were computers aplenty in that inferior film, but their principal function was to measure television viewership of blood sports for criminal elements.1
Meanwhile, real-world computer networking, which began in the late 1960s, blossomed into the Internet in the early 1980s, and everyone who could afford to buy a computer was using the device for everything from shopping to bill-paying to record-keeping to game-playing, and partaking of other forms of diversion and entertainment too numerous to mention. Universities became major purchasers of computers; and, on campuses everywhere, faculty, staff, and students embraced them to supposed advantage. Cuttingedge stuff, and all that. The computer was the surfboard upon which [End Page 116] one rode the wave of the future, and, while some people warned of the danger of falling off, few seemed to pay much attention.
Personnel responsible for the maintenance of my least favourite research library certainly threw caution to the winds when they transferred the contents of the card catalogue to computer storage and then disposed of the cards. Problem was, not all the call numbers reached their destination. Perhaps the entries were made by minimum-wage employees who did not pay close attention to what they were doing. Perhaps some of the cards fell on the floor and were swept away by janitorial brooms. At first, librarians denied that any such thing had happened – or even that it could happen – but of course it had; and at last a couple of librarians admitted it.2 Well, there will be lapses. In the 1970s, technicians would tell scholars trying unsuccessfully to make sense of processed data that made no sense, 'Garbage in, garbage out.' Thirty years later, scholars in search of books were having to remind librarians, 'Nothing in, nothing out.'
One wonders sometimes whether librarians in this Digital Age fully appreciate their responsibilities in the matter of preserving materials that patrons might find useful. I raise the question because of a piece I read by a scholar who was preparing a history of the use of computers in industry. He discovered that some libraries had discarded books about technologies that librarians had deemed obsolete. Ah, the irony. Libraries committed to the use of the gizmo had decided that books about outdated gizmos were themselves also useless. The scholar had gone to second-hand book-stores to find the volumes he needed for his history, and often he found them still adorned with bookplates from the libraries that had discarded them.3
The digitization of books seems also to be a passion of the modern academic library, perhaps because it may provide yet another excuse for emptying the stacks – to make room for more computers, one might suppose. As anyone who has worked with materials on microfilm or any other microform knows, the job of copying the originals has to be done carefully and well, or it might as well not be done at all. Torn or missing pages, exaggerated dog-ears, too many pages turned...