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In the Library of Babel
July 20, 2010 - 8:51pm

I’d better start by explaining the fish.

I hope in this space to explore the intersections of libraries and technology and the ways academic libraries contribute to teaching and learning, with the occasional shout-out to the open access movement as one of the ways we can sustain scholarship as a collaborative, evolving, and inclusive conversation. You might even find me preaching the gospel of liberation bibliography from time to time.

But first things first. A blog needs a name. Unfortunately, In the Library With the Lead Pipe is already in use. So is The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics, Info-fetishist, and See Also.

Darn. All the good ones are taken.

Casting around for something different, I remembered Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “The Library of Babel,” first published in 1941 in The Garden of Forking Paths. His narrator describes a vast library that has no boundaries and no center. It’s filled with an infinite number of books, many of which are imperfect copies of other books. It’s a feverish library, and a frustrating one. All knowledge is there, somewhere, but whatever you are seeking is always in some other part of the library, tantalizingly close but constantly slipping away. It’s a place that is both exciting (wow! Look at all that stuff!) and massively depressing (wow! Look at all that stuff!) It’s a great metaphor for the yin/yang of research. Abundance is wonderful, except when it isn’t. It also seems to offer proof that Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet; Borges did. Score one for librarians.

Given my mind tends to play hopscotch with ideas, I immediately jumped from the Library of Babel to the Babel Fish from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Universe. It’s small, yellow, leechlike, and one of the oddest things in the universe, able to transform brainwaves into a lingua franca. If you stick one in your ear, you can understand anything said to you, in any language. Though this doesn’t guarantee world peace (removing barriers to communication, it seems, just gives people more ways to disagree) it seems like a handy accessory for the Library of Babel.

Once fish came into it, I had to invite the Library Society of the World’s Cod of Ethics to be part of this. Though the Cod arose spontaneously out of a typo, it’s an appropriate mascot for the peaceable anarchy that is the Library Society of the World, a seriously playful group of library professionals who network using free Internet tools and a healthy sense of humor. This loosely organized collective is a terrific example of how we can do what scholarly societies were created to do, minus the formality, membership dues, publication lag-time, or committees. Cod knows we don’t need any more committees.

So I settled on Library Babel Fish, thinking I might try my hand at translating some of the complexities of academic libraries. Libraries are in a weird state of flux these days. On the one hand, they continue to have their traditional role in preserving culture; on the other, they change constantly. If you thought you finally grasped the fine points of searching a particular database, think again; its interface was probably “improved” in the past week. Feel comfortable finding your way around the Web site? Must be time for a redesign. To use a library is to wade into a stream of change. It’s never the same twice - yet we look to libraries for continuity, for coherence, for an opportunity to exit the fast lane and coast into a more contemplative state of mind.

However contested its nature, one thing the academic library continues to be is the common ground for its institution. It’s the one place on campus, both in its virtual and traditional forms, where all the disciplines mingle, where ownership is shared, where ideas are meant to collide and quibble and procreate. It’s an organized free-for-all where students and faculty can interact with ideas, drink coffee, check a reference, check Facebook, take a nap, or make a breakthrough.

I hope this blog will be little bit like that. With fish.

 

 

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