- The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy
Charles B. Osburn (dean and professor emeritus, University Libraries, University of Alabama) attempts to develop a comprehensive philosophy of the library to show why the library exists rather than how it functions. Typically, we think libraries exist to collect, organize, and disseminate information. What Osburn tries to do, as his subtitle indicates, is uncover the larger philosophy governing libraries and their role in our culture so that we may see more clearly.
He places the library within the sphere of cultural evolution. Cultural evolution requires ideas, values, memory, intellectual freedom, communication, and the like, which libraries foster. It also requires what Kenneth Boulding, a founder of numerous intellectual projects in economics and social science, calls the “social transcript,” the process by which humans transfer their culture, values, and experiences to the future. The library is a “cultural technology” designed to provide stewardship over this social transcript. Osburn builds upon an astonishing array of scholarship on culture and society to show the necessity of communication, memory, language, and so on for human cultural evolution and then argues that this combination of social traits and practices—culture, so to speak—created [End Page 584] libraries to preserve relevant selections of the human record, organize them, make them accessible, and transmit them to future generations.
According to Osburn, while there have been echoes of a library philosophy, no one has managed to develop a comprehensive philosophy of the library. He briefly surveys the philosophical contributions of several library thinkers (S. R. Ranganathan, Jesse Shera, Pierce Butler, and John Budd), but maintains that their contributions, while significant, do not constitute a comprehensive library philosophy. He also notes several reasons for the absence of a comprehensive philosophy, including the tendency for librarians to focus exclusively on practice or to mistake technological means for ends in themselves. While the book does draw upon a wide range of scholarship to make its argument and to uncover the purpose of the library, it is not clear that the thesis of The Social Transcript advances us much beyond the work of other library philosophers.
The Social Transcript is perhaps most valuable because of the wide range of quotations and ideas from scholars working in so many other fields that have some relevance to thinking about the library and its place in culture. However, this is also one of its weaknesses. To develop his philosophy, Osburn relies upon work in “evolution, culture, psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, archeology, theory of history, biology, genetics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, communication, literacy, environmental science, library history and theory, psychiatry, neuroscience, literary theory,” among others. (p. xii) He admits at the beginning that, since he has drawn upon so many works outside his field, he uses “what may be considered an unusual number of direct quotations.” (p. xii) That [End Page 585] is something of an understatement. The Social Transcript often reads like a common-place book rather than a developed argument because there are a large number of direct quotations not sufficiently integrated into the argument or of obvious relevance to the discussion of the library. In addition, occasional repetition and awkward prose are often a distraction from even the most interesting portions of the book.
Despite these problems, The Social Transcript should be praised for drawing together so many strands of scholarship and showing their relevance to library philosophy and also for demonstrating the higher purpose of libraries and their extraordinary role in our, or any, culture. Librarians and library scholars so often focus on the mundane and practical that they lose sight of the larger purpose of what libraries do and why they are necessary for the survival of a free, democratic society. The Social Transcript elevates our thinking about libraries and shows that ultimately the library is about people and ideas, not just books and computers.