‘We’d be discarding them, anyway’

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The Library of Congress announced a few years back that it will now archive the collected works of Twitter, the cell-phone text messaging service, whose users currently send a daily flood of 55 million messages, none containing more than 140 characters.

Federal officials explained the agreement as another step in the tax-funded national library’s embrace of digital media. Twitter, the Silicon Valley start-up, declared it “very exciting that tweets are becoming part of history.”

“Academic researchers seem pleased as well,” reports Steve Lohr for The New York Times. “For hundreds of years, they say, the historical record has tended to be somewhat elitist because of its selectivity. In books, magazines and newspapers, they say, it is the prominent and the infamous who are written about most frequently.”

The Twitter archive will join the ambitious “Web capture” project at the library, begun a decade ago. That effort “has assembled Web pages, online news articles and documents, typically concerning significant events like presidential elections and the terrorist attacks of 9/11,” explained Matt Raymond, the library’s director of communications.

The Web capture project already has stored 167 terabytes of digital material -– “far more than the equivalent of the text of the 21 million books in the library’s collection.”

America’s librarians long ago decided their task should go beyond merely hoarding and preserving “books,” of course. Over the decades they expanded their efforts to also acquire and preserve manuscripts, prints, the letters and papers of significant authors, sheet music, posters, etc.

All very well. But the key word there is “also.” The implication has been that they would collect and preserve all this other stuff in addition to books.

But that’s not true. There’s always limited space, and limited resources.

I grew up in the Northeast, where I found university libraries a wonderland of preserved culture and knowledge -– most in the form of “books,” many dating back 80 years and more. When I played hooky from my mandatory government youth propaganda camp (“public high school,” to all you government youth wardens and stooges out there), I’d wander the steel staircases of the stacks of the nearby university library for hours, researching any topic that caught my fancy, from the 16th-Century holocaust of the witches to the Russo-Japanese War. (I remember that stuff. As to whatever dumbed-down, committee-approved blather my assigned government “teachers” were droning on about, celebrating scoundrels and traitors from Lincoln to Roosevelt? I passed my exams and promptly forgot not only the fictionalized content, but even the names of the courses, as I presume we all did.)

Moving here to the West, where many libraries were founded almost a century later, I was shocked to encounter public libraries with no “stacks,” at all -– their entire collections, dominated by popular romance fiction and kiddie books, frequently stored on a single floor, in shoulder-high bookcases in an area little larger than a common suburban house.

In their endless struggle to be seen as “hip” and “relevant” by the legislators and taxpaying parents who control their funding, the librarians of both public and academic libraries are moving more and more toward becoming full-service social agencies. Yes, the libraries are often crowded, but with children instructed by working parents to use these buildings as 3-to-5 p.m. day care centers, with people attending film screenings, art exhibits, lunchtime lectures, children’s story hours, or borrowing time on the libraries’ computers or wi-fi connections . . . even borrowing movies on videotape or DVD -– free of charge, which helped put the fee-charging, tax-paying video stores out of business.

Books? More and more books -– especially material more than 30 years old, now perceived as being “out-of-date” not merely in the scientific disciplines, but also in fiction and other areas where pre-1980 authors are presumed to have shown insufficient sensitivity to today’s more Politically Correct standards on race, gender, etc. -– are sold off in parking lot sales, or simply dumped by the thousands.

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‘It’s not worth sending them back’

As a seller of used books, I frequently find myself digging through boxes of older books given away, donated to thrift shops, or sold for small sums at estate sales. Recently, I found myself with some boxes that contained a fair number of books bearing the ownership stamps of a single college library in an adjoining state -– but no “Withdrawn” stamps.

These were not thousand-dollar books out of any “rare book room” -– there were no Shakespeare Folios or hand-illuminated medieval breviaries. We’re talking books like a two-volume, 1941 set of the travel journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the famed early-19th-Century British poet, which might sell today (in ex-library condition) for thirty or forty dollars.

Had these books -– acquired by that library in the 1940s, and likely out of their hands since the 1970s -– been sold off in some early library de-acquisition sale? Or had some former student or faculty member simply packed them up and carried them away when they left campus?

Rather than worrying that I might be “peddling stolen property,” I picked up the phone and called that college library to ask. A very pleasant librarian told me pretty much what I expected to hear: “Thanks for your call, but no, it’s not worth sending them back.” If these hardcover books of modest value had been added to the library’s collection in the 1940s, “We’d be discarding them now, anyway. We’d be donating them to a thrift shop.”

“Oh Vin,” I can hear some readers fuming, “things do go out of date, you know. These days, any information they want to keep can be scanned in and stored much more efficiently as electronic files.”

OK. Books made of dead trees are not the perfect storage medium. They weigh a ton, they take up a lot of room; they can be destroyed by fire, insects, rodents, or floods. And make no mistake, while editors and publishers played some winnowing role (not always wisely — look at how many notable authors had to self-publish their first books), the majority of books ever printed aren’t worth saving -– starting with all those Readers Digest condensed editions.

Since we can’t afford the expense or space to keep everything shelved away from the elements, someone has to do the triage, to show some discernment. But we’ve generally come to expect dead-tree books which someone values to last up to 200 years with only moderate care — maybe another century beyond that if they’re judged worthy of re-binding. At which point someone can always bring out a new, annotated edition, reflecting the benefit of further scholarship. And in the meantime, the book does not change -– you can always use it to “go look something up.”

Easily altered, deleted

Meantime, these new, electronic means of storage have been with us for what, 30 years? Less? I’ve already heard of books, published close to 30 years ago, whose original manuscripts exist only as floppy discs in programs no longer in common use. We have no experience whatsoever with how these methods of electronic storage will survive future wars, when bursts of Electro-Magnetic radiation may be deployed to try and shut down an enemy’s computer-controlled armaments.

I distinctly recall being updated on a new computer memory system being installed at the newspaper where I worked. I asked how I could go in and delete stuff that was no longer needed, lest the memory banks get clogged. The young technicians literally laughed. “The memory capacity of this new system is effectively INFINITE!” they assured me. Do you know how long it was before their successors came around, pleading with us to purge unnecessary files so the overloaded system wouldn’t keep bogging down, slowing down, and periodically crashing? Less than two years.

Besides, once it’s held only in the form of digitized electronic impulses, the knowledge and culture of centuries can be easily altered, selectively edited, changed and rewritten, by chipper, well-meaning folks who would congratulate themselves that they were merely “cleaning things up” and “rendering them less offensive and contradictory” by “removing hateful misinformation such as writings that argued there’s no man-made global warming, or that vaccinations can do more harm than good, or that women played little role in the American Revolution, writings that spread discontent by encouraging disrespect for our leaders and their policies,” or what have you. And how would future generations know the difference?

If it hasn’t happened yet, readers will soon encounter “digital editions” of “Huckleberry Finn” without a hint of the word “nigger.”

Of course much that has been written is wrong. The question is whether our progeny would really be better off, deprived of the knowledge that there had even been debates about such questions, debates which might someday be re-opened in light of new evidence, or that might at least teach us how long it can take to disprove and abandon a long-accepted error.

The “historical record has tended to be somewhat elitist,” because “In books, magazines and newspapers it is the prominent and the infamous who are written about most frequently”? But to be immersed in all available information is to have no useful information at all! You’d be smothered in minutiae! This is the truism that gave us the amusing plaque for the front of the house reading “On this spot on July 17, 1775, absolutely nothing of any importance happened.”

Of course we always have a right to ask who’s doing the “screening,” and to demand access to alternative reports and views. But the first job of the honorable and diligent reporter or historian (there are a few left) is to sift a smaller, selected mountain of data and take a first stab at telling you what was important about yesterday’s Legislative floor debate. If one of the senators pulled a pistol and killed his opponent, should that single “elitist” detail be buried in a word-by-word recitation of the droning floor debate on some obscure enactment that took up the previous several hours — or, heck, the misspelled tweets being sent by some teen-age girl across the street — so that 99 percent of readers or listeners or viewers “switch the channel” before getting to a few “elitist” details that they might like to — and really ought to — know?

While the NSA or DARPA may well be blowing billions of our tax dollars developing screening software to search all that data for occurrences of the phrases “poison the reservoir” or “assassinate the president” (but not in Arabic, of course -– that would be “discriminatory”), I submit that a stored 167-terabyte database of all the Tweets ever sent is, for all practical purposes, worthless. Meantime, it’s taking staff time and storage capacity that -– in nearly every case, as a practical matter — can only be provided by dumping something “old.”

More to the point, the folks in charge of our tax-funded public libraries — including most academic libraries, now heavily tax-subsidized through tuition loans and guarantees and thus susceptible to political pressures -– have been so seduced by this dangerous nonsense that (with the exception of a few iconic titles shown off for institutional prestige -– think “Shakespeare Folios”) they can no longer be relied upon to preserve, unaltered, America’s “books.”

This role now falls -– as it has at various times in the past -– to the private dealer and collector. So please, don’t donate grandpa’s carefully gathered and preserved library to some “big, public-spirited institution” for “safe-keeping” without inquiring very carefully about its likely long-term fate –- and whether there might not be a “greedy, selfish” private collector who would be more likely to hold it in trust for his or her progeny -– and thus for ours.

5 Comments to “‘We’d be discarding them, anyway’”

  1. MamaLiberty Says:

    Made the sad mistake of donating some of my older nursing textbooks to the college library when I retired. I was outraged to discover that they’d discarded them immediately, and had no chance to recover them. It would have been so much better if they’d just said, “no thank you.”

    On the other hand, I’ve found books in our county library that have not been checked out in years… ten years in one case. And they were terrible books, far as I could see. A private, for profit library would have no problem tossing those out, of course. On the other, other hand, I’ve found some real gems that had not been checked out for years either.

    I don’t know the answers to the big questions here… but I’m confident that the free market would provide opportunity to all, and all the answers most folks would really need. Too bad that’s not a reality now. 🙁

  2. Rational Review News Digest, 02/22/16 - Libya: Serbian embassy hostages killed in US airstrikes - Thomas L. Knapp - Liberty.me Says:

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  3. Winston Smith Says:

    Fahrenheit 451 and The Time Machine come to mind reading your post.

    Well, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, of course…

  4. Rocketman Says:

    I hate seeing anything that has value wasted. The question that should be asked is “How do you know where your going if you don’t know where you have been?”
    Another thought is what happens when all of the knowledge is on “the cloud” and not on paper anymore? Does that mean that some powerful people or governments can change records with a push of the button? That there wasn’t a Armenian slaughter by the Turks right after WW1 because there is no longer any record of it for example?
    Let’s keep at least some things on paper until at least everyone is honest enough to admit the bad along with the good.

  5. Rhino Says:

    I have to admit Vin that I just bought your book, “The Testament of James” in electronic form for Kindle. I really like my Kindle for it’s convenience of so many books in such a small package but more for the fact that my older eyes can actually read it in any light. That said, I agree that keeping every tweet is worthless. In fact less than worthless. It’s like saving every bowel movement for posterity.

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