13 January 2014

A Second Renaissance: What Digital Libraries Can Do

The Green Mountain Library Consortium (GMLC) was one of the beneficiaries this past year of the Vermont Humanities Council's (VHC) philanthropy. Their generous $1500 grant will put more ebooks on Listen Up Vermont's (LUV's) digital shelf for all digital patrons in Vermont.

“The VHC looks to connect people to programs, events, and resources that promote greater public awareness, appreciation, and understanding of literature, history, art history, religion and other humanities disciplines. They seek to deepen understanding of human experience by connecting people with ideas, by encouraging civility and civic engagement, and by supporting community conversations about ideas that help us both better understand the past and envision and strive for a better future.”

With the VHC's trust in GMLC's mission of building a more robust digital libray for all Vermonters, we will endeavor to bring positive change to Vermont's literary culture through our ubiquitous, multifaceted, robost digital library, LUV.

LUV and all digital libraries can change the way our civilization thinks, communicates ideas, and plans for a future where smarter pathways are easier to find and follow. Digital libraries are the culmination of work of so many writers, librarians, computer programmers, and all who believed in this idea. I remember in the 1990s when Project Gutenberg set about trying to digitize books that had outlived their copyrights. It was such a powerful platform to volunteer for. It was also ridiculously mundane work, copying pages into the database for the computer program to abstract the text and then reading the abstracted text to make sure the program got it right. The monotony surely deterred many, but for those that persevered the result was the infancy of the digital library. Everyone suddenly had access to all the great works of fiction that had been created over the last twenty centuries, except of course the books published in the last eighty or so years which were still under copyright. The result, you no longer had to pay to read Jules Verne or Francis Bacon, was amazing! It was a liberating idea and captured the imaginations of so many who dared to dream of what a digital library could become. These dreams allowed us to begin to actualize the idealized fantasy that so many science fiction writers had proposed, a digital library that was the gateway to everything. All of it! Books, information, music, videos, maps, research … Everything!

In Stephen Greenblatt's novel Swerve, he conjectures how the serendipitous rediscovery of one manuscript, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, changed the direction of civilization's thinking and fueled the Renaissance. There have been many achievements and triumphs in the humanities over the ages like that one: the libraries of the ancient world, like the one at Alexandria; the Laurentian library designed and built by Michaelangelo in the heart of Florence during the heart of the Renaissance; hundreds of Americans waiting on the docks in Boston to await Dickens's last chapter installment of The Old Curiosity Shop to find out if Little Nell lived; and most recently J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter septet that gave such a powerful stepping stone for so many of our newest and youngest readers. These miraculous literary accomplishments and conglomerations of literature have allowed civilization to become more absorbed by words and because of that more thoughtful, empathetic, and possibly more innovative. They have given power to the writer and lessened the power of the sword.

What did these triumphs do? What did the first libraries change? Were they just buildings with books or did they inspire something more? Aren't libraries doorways to understanding, knowledge and innovation? Did scores of people decide they would put down the sword and pick up a book instead because of libraries? Why did people wait on the docks in Boston for Dickens's last installment? What made millions pick up Rowling's books? Why has it taken so long to make books available to everyone, not just the small groups of entitled aristocrats and intelligentsia? And should they have been available to anyone searching for an answer, looking to make their job a little easier with some mechanical ingenuity, or trying to find inspiration to make their life more meaningful?

What will bring us to the point in our development as a great society where thinking is so respected and so needed that we will understand that innovation can come from making all information free to all people? This digital library technology is now in our hands. We could create a universal library resource like this if we so chose. Creating this resource is one of the remarkable shifts in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek universe that allows for his civilization to fast forward in so many ways. It is the point where innovation far outstrips the cost of personal and corporate gain. A time when ideas can be shared so easily that our ability to communicate effectively goes viral. A time when innovation puts an end to hunger, poverty, and disease, which leads to an age where disparate ideas can coexist without war. A time where innovation becomes like clockwork because there are 8 billion people all working together to find a better model, a better way.

The digital library is finally leaving its infancy and it has the potential to do as much or more than any of the other phenomenons that have battled for rational thought and the humanities, but what exactly will it do and how will it accomplish this? Will our society read more? Will we think more? Will we discuss important topics more because everything we need is at our fingertips?

I think the answers to all these questions is 'yes'. I think LUV will change the common discourse in Vermont. If people don't need to spend time driving to the library, they have more time to enjoy a book. More time to sink deeply into another person's shoes. More time to empathize with a character that is different from themselves. More time to consider our decisions and how we want to be perceived. More time to study a period in time that has always interested us. More time to learn how Michaelangelo was able to design the Laurentian Library with the materials of the time. More time to consider all the inspirational decisions and artwork that have been made. And it is with this vision that we thank the Vermont Humanities Council for their generous grant.

As Cory Doctorow writes in For The Win, there is a time when every sword becomes useless. Let's allow LUV to grow and welcome in a second Renaissance and an age of useless swords. An age of useful words.

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