Unique collections and Fahrenheit 451

With the advent of globally networked computers and digitizing equipment, libraries can now provide more and better access to their special collections and considering the current economic milieu where information is readily bought, sold, and licienced, this may be the only future for libraries. This future may end up looking very much like the conclusion to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

As you may or may not know, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, first published in 1951, describes a place where books are banned. The government of this place does not want the populous to think. The place is governed by making the people complacent through television and drugs. It is believed books contain conflicting untruths. Books serve the unbenificial purpose of making people aware of painful feelings. Books cause people to think and consequently cause uncertainty and confusion. Firemen, the guardians of these beliefs, are people whose job it is to seek out and destroy books. Fahrenheit 451's protagonist, Montag, is a fireman. During the course of his duties, he becomes curious about the contents of books and, ironically, becomes an avid reader. Near the end, he is discovered and escapes to the land of the Book People. When he arrives, he learns the whereabouts of many of the place's missing people and learns that each one has committed the contents of a single book to memory. Thus, the Book People spend their days reciting their book over and over waiting for the day when books are no longer illegal and thinking is again encouraged.

"Fahrenheit 451..."
"Fahrenheit 451..."

Okay, maybe the future of libraries is not exactly like the conclusion to Fahrenheit 451, but in a society where information is routinely bought, sold, and licienced you have to wonder. The prices of scholarly journals have gone through the roof. It is not uncommon for an academic library to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for 12 monthly issues of any particular title. Current interpretations of copyright law lean in favor of distributors and not authors. While it hasn't happened yet, rest assured of the day when you will have to have your "personal debit card ready" when using Internet resources in order to access something. This isn't so bad. Really! These distributors are in the business of earning money. Charging for convieient access is their means of feeding their families. The problem comes in when you learn the information is not yours. You did not buy the information. You leased it.

This economic environment is causing more and more academic libraries to subscribe to fewer and fewer journals. While cooperative agreements make financial sense, they do not serve our clientele. "Books are for use." The inability of a person to browse a journal article before photocopying greatly reduces the possibility of that journal article being used. Information needs are too ephemeral to wait on interlibrary loan. Some would say the present "serials crisis" is a manifestation of market forces where the stronger, more competitive, more necessary titles will be the only titles to survive. Unfortunately, I don't think the value of information can determined using financial profitability is the most significant measure.

This same environment has made more libraries think about digitizing their own unique collections and providing access to them for a fee or for barter. Scanning projects abound. Some electronic serial projects use this model (Project Muse and JSTOR). SGML projects are being implemented in the hopes of selling (licencing) the information to other libraries, consortiums, or anybody who want to subscribe.

If the present scenario continues, then authors will write their materials and hand them over to scholarly publishers. Users will then use some sort of index provided by the scholarly publisher (or through the library) and download (or merely view) the article online after paying the publisher directly (or indirectly through the library). Libraries will not own any or very few scholarly journals. Similarly, sections of books, mostly scholarly books and not fiction, will be accessed and viewed online. After all, when was the last time you read an entire piece of non-fiction from cover to cover?

At the same time, these libraries of the future will have created their own publications. These publications are the items in each library's special collection. Academic libraries may have the papers of influential faculty members or collections of unpublished regional merit. Public and state libraries will provide access to genealogical records. Special libraries will provide the "knowledge management" services of their parent institutions. In short, each library will only know one book, their unique book that no one else has. This is what happens in the end of Fahrenheit 451.

Actually, I don't really think this is the sort of thing that is going to happen. Book publishing is a booming business. Today's population seems to have an insatiable need for data and information. Our networked computer environment is making it easier and easier for individuals to "publish" what ever they desire. They do it too. As you know, you can find just about topic humanly imaginable on the Internet. The content may not be authoritative or up-to-date, but it there if you take time to find it. If you are willing to pay, then you can find even more.

If this is true, then why do we need libraries? One reason includes the special collections. If you host a Web server, then I challenge you to identify your site's most unique items and those items that hold the most wide spread value. I would be willing to bet those same items are your server's most popular items. We also need libraries for the librarians. These people, as I preach to the choir, help other people articulate their "information needs" and help these people locate the information they seek. Computers may help in these regards, but I have too many doubts that computers will be able to master the sublties, dynamics, and nuances of human language in order to truly understand what information seekers want. For that matter, do librarians ever really know what their clientele want? Let's hope so. Like real-estate brokers, librarians also help people locate the sorts of information they seek by eliminating the information they don't want. This is not a glamorous image, but it is practical and can keep us with careers for the forseeable future.

Fahrenheit 451 is not so much about books as it is about thinking. Books were seen as conduits for thoughts and ideas. The society of Fahrenheit 451 did not relish the thinking process and tried to eliminate it by eliminating the conduits. In our world, books and certainly information are all but baned. Yet, we are all putting restrictions on the use of books and information by putting monetary values on them. If the trend continues, then the only people who will have ready access to authoritative information will be the people who can afford it, the firemen of the future. While nobody denies the rights of people to make money by distributing information, it is simply unethical to charge as much as the market can bear. Information should be distributed not for the purposes of making huge profits but for the improvement of humankind.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <eric_morgan@infomotions.com>
Source: This is a pre-edited edited copy for Eric Lease Morgan, "Unique collections and Fahrenheit 451" Computers In Libraries. 17(9):18-20, October 1997.
Date created: 1997-08-10
Date updated: 2004-11-14
Subject(s): librarianship; special collections; Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury;
URL: http://infomotions.com/musings/unique-collections/