Adventures in Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries

In this scene [in Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra], the ancient library becomes a sign of infinitely more than a collection, however large, of papyrus rolls. The destruction of the library of Alexandria — whoever was really responsible — becomes over-determined: it must vanish because the tensions it crystallized have never yet been resolved. It is evidence that time can never be reversed because the dead are divided by silence from the living, even as it transcends time in representing a form of dialogue between them. It takes on a quasi-metaphysical status. Just as the Sumerarians called libraries “the ordainers of the universe,” the Romans could even envisage the goddesses who determine human destiny, the Parcae or Fates, as librarians: in the fifth century A.D. the late pagan writer Martianus Capella described the Pacae as “librarians of the gods and the guardians of their archive, ” utpote librariae Superum archivumque custodes.”

The library as an idea does indeed unify opposites: like rhetoric, it has an immanent ethics, no immanent qualities of virtue or vice, but it is a tool that can both liberate and oppress. Bernard Shaw had of course not read Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), in which book collections or archives of any kind were subjected to their first major critique as institutions of power, and further reinforcing the exercise of that power. Shaw did not know that by the last twentieth century there would emerge a powerful feminist and postcolonial suspicion of the universal, monolithic repository of knowledge. he did not know that people would claim the impossibility in any ideologically conflicted world, let alone a truly democratic one, of a single institution accommodating the inevitably antithetical subjectivities of its inhabitants.  Nor had George Eliot read Foucault when in Middlemarch (1874) she made the library of the classic pendant Edward Casaubon stand for everything that prevented the flowering of real intellectual enquiry, let alone love, in the education-starved Dorothea’s soul.

When he claimed that Alexandria was the cultural capital of the world by founding its library in the early third century B.C. Ptolemy I Soter had certainly not read Foucault any more than Eliot or Shaw. Ancient creators of libraries were always either very powerful (like Ptolemy or Trajan) or very rich (like Pliny): for equally obvious reasons, they always presented the creation of a library, whether public or private, as a self-evidently good thing.

Edith Hall, Adventures in Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries, The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, Princeton University Press, 2015, p.17.

The Library as Idea and Space

From around 300 BC until the beginning of its destruction with the Roman imperial takeover under Julius Caesar, the Library of Alexandria was the principal workplace for international scholarship. In light of this discussion of the curatorial, it is worth noting that this classical library was in fact incorporated into a larger complex known as the Mouseion, or House of the Muses, which formed a multidisciplinary study center similar to a university (etymologically, it is the source of the modern word “museum”). In his erudite meditation on libraries, Alberto Manguel makes the observation that in terms of a conception of the world, the Library of Alexandria and the Tower of Babel are direct opposites. While the tower represents the “belief in the unity of the universe,” the library instead embodies an understanding that the world is made up of innumerable different voices that, if somehow collected and read, would “address the whole of creation” through their very singularity and yet, as an ensemble, could never become static.  Expanding Manguel’s comparison, it is interesting to consider the two architectures in relation to concepts of dispersal and containment. In the moment of its destruction fragments of the Tower are violently and irretrievably flung out in all directions across the Earth, whereas the Library derives its meaning as a space of proximity for gathering together such fragments.

In the context of Occidental history, however, libraries are especially symbolic of a particular Enlightenment sensibility. Poignantly addressed by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, libraries became the new cathedrals of cities when science and the attendant desire to disseminate knowledge replaced the religious impetus of previous generations. Stories were no longer told primarily through clerical art and architecture but were instead translated, multiplied, and circulated through printed books. In Hugo’s novel, this idea is summarized in the phrase “Ceci tuera cela” [“this will kill that”]—a provocative exaggeration, though the printing press by no means did away with architecture, just as the digital turn has not replaced printed matter. What is true, however, is that the ethos of the public library (in contrast to private, monastic, or other specialized and restricted libraries) continues to be intimately connected to democratic ideals of equality and free access to knowledge and culture. Such libraries are usually non-profit spaces, which provide citizens with material and immaterial goods and media that would otherwise have to be purchased. Therefore, one of the many ways in which the library contributes to societyis by converting marketable goods into public goods. The potential of the library for making things public is furthermore reflected in its paradoxical reality as an intellectual meeting place: based on intellectual and communal values, it also lends a public platform to otherwise fundamentally private— whether mental or cerebral—activities like reading and thinking, thus connecting it with ideals such as free speech and the freedom of expression. The library is thus both a political economy and an intellectual space.

Springer, A.-S. “Legere and βιβλιοθήκη: The Library as Idea and Space,” Fantasies of the Library, MIT Press, 2016.

The Art of Relevance: Wants and Needs

You may have noticed that I have framed relevance strictly from the perspective of what the participant/community wants. Where they want to go. What they want to do. What they think matters.

This is intentional. It’s not about you. It’s not about what you think people need or want or deserve. It’s about them — their values, their priorities.

In 2007, I sat on a panel at the National Academies of Science about the future of museums and libraries. I was the youngest person there, cowed by leaders and experts in the room. I’ll never forget a distinguished CEO, banging his fist on the table and saying, “Our job is not to give people what they want but what they need.”

I was too nervous to say anything at the time, but the phrase stuck like a thorn in my brain  stem. The thorn jammed in a little further each time I heard it, dozens of times over the years, in meetings and conferences and brainstorming sessions.

The phrase drives me nuts. It smacks of paternalism. As if it weren’t enough to be the experts on our subject matter. Now we’re the experts on what people “need” too?

I don’t think we can tell the difference between what people want and what they need…

… Does this mean we shouldn’t care about what people want and need? Of course not. We should care deeply about these things. We should do whatever we can to discover more about peoples’ desires, goals, needs, and values. But learning about someone’s needs and prescribing those needs are completely different.

In my experience, the institutionally-articulated “needs” of audiences often look suspiciously like the “wants” of the professions speaking. Professionals want silence in the auditorium, so they say “people need respite from their busy lives.” Priests want parishioners to accept the canon as presented, so they say, “people need strong spiritual guidance.” Teachers want students to listen attentively, so they say “kinds need to learn this.”

When I ask the phrase “don’t give people what they want, give them what they need” means, I am often told that we should not be pandering to people’s expressed desires but presenting them with experiences that challenge them and open up new ways of seeing the world.

I agree. It is incredibly valuable for cultural institutions to present experiences that might be surprising, unexpected, or outside participants’ comfort zones. But I don’t typically hear this phrase deployed to argue in favor of a risky program format or an unusual piece of content. I don’t hear this phrase accompanied by evidence-based articulation of “needs” of audiences. Instead, I hear this phrase used to defend traditional formats and content in the face of change. I hear “don’t give people what they want, give them what I want.”

Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Santa Cruz, Calif: Museum 2.0, 2016.

Oh, we’re really making an AI

Around 2002 I attended a private party for Google — before its IPO, when it was a small company focused only on search. I struck up a conversation with Larry Page, Google’s brilliant cofounder. “Larry, I still don’t get it. There are so many search companies. Web search, for free? Where does that get you?” My unimaginative blindness is solid evidence that predicting is hard, especially about the future, but in my defense this was before Google had ramped up its ad auction scheme to generate real income, long before YouTube or any other major acquisitions. I was not the only avid user of its search site you thought it would not last long. But Page’s reply has always stuck with me: “Oh, we’re really making an A.I.”

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation over the past few years as Google has bought 13 other AI and robotics companies in addition to DeepMind. At first glance, you might think that Google is beefing up its AI portfolio to improve its search capabilities, since search constitutes 80 percent of its revenue. But I think that’s backward. Bather than use AI to make its search better, Google is using search to make its AI better. Every tie you type a query, click on a search-generated link, or create a link on the web, you are training the Google AI. When you type “Easter Bunny” into the image search bar and then click on the most Easter Bunny-looking image, you are teaching the AI what an Easter Bunny looks like. Each of the 3 billion queries that Google conducts each day tutors the deep-learning AI over and over again. With another 10 years of steady improvements to its AI algorithms, plus a thousandfold more data and a hundreds more computing resources, Google will have an unrivaled AI. In a quarterly earning conference call in the fall of 2015, Google CEO Sundar Pichai stated that AI was going to be “a core transformative way by which we are rethinking everything we are doing… We are applying it to all of our products, be it search, be it YouTube and Play etc.” My prediction: By 2026, Google’s main product will not be search but AI.

Kelly, Kevin. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, 2016.

Readings Omnibus

This past year at the University of Toronto, some anecdotal instances of increased student cost in one particular segment of the course materials market, that of course packs, received attention in the student press. According to this coverage, course packs had become more expensive as a direct result of the decision by the University of Toronto to not renew its collective license agreement with the Canadian copyright collective licensing agency, Access Copyright.1 A student told the University of Toronto student newspaper The Varsity, “my… professor told the class we would have to buy [the] course pack for nearly double the price it cost last year due to the termination of the Access Copyright license” (Robin 2014). Similar anecdotal stories have appeared at other institutions, as a growing number of universities and colleges in Canada have decided that the collective license agreement with Access Copyright was not worth the price at which it was being offered in negotiations, given the possibility of managing copyright costs internally. (More recently, students at Ryerson University expressed similar shock and disappointment with rising course pack costs in the aftermath of the expiration of Ryerson’s agreement with Access Copyright) (Chandler, 2016). As these student press articles show, there are undoubtedly some instances in which costs to students did rise significantly. However, depending on whether the instructor or producer of a given course pack was aware of the extent of their rights under Canadian copyright law and the contents of their library’s collections, these increased costs may have been unnecessary.

Cancilla, N. et al., (2017). Engaging Faculty and Reducing Costs by Leveraging Collections: A Pilot Project to Reduce Course Pack Use. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication. 4. DOI:

The third and final section of the survey consisted of three questions about tasks performed when assessing a journal package for renewal. The prompt read: “When determining whether to renew a journal package, where do you perform the following tasks?” The three assessment tasks were: calculating cost per use of journal titles, comparing usage statistics with other packages, and viewing usage statistics. These three assessment tasks are overwhelmingly performed outside the system for all three LSPs, and percentages are comparable across systems. Cost per use (Q3.1) assessment is only performed in Alma by 5% of users, in Sierra by 4%, and in WSP by 6%.

Singley, Emily, and Jane Natches. “Finding the gaps: A survey of electronic resource management in Alma, Sierra, and WMS”, 2016. Note: Pre-print version of an article that will be published in Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship 29(2).

The author found that 74% of print titles acquired in 2008‐09 had been used within their first six years in the collection, and that 27% of print books acquired between 2008 and 2014 had been used between July 2013 and November 2014. By contrast, only 12% of the ebooks acquired between 2008 and 2014 were used during the same 17‐month period. The author examines how different print and electronic collection development models might affect monograph use in academic libraries within the context of previously published research.

Factors Affecting the Use of Print a nd Electronic Books: A Use Study and Discussion. Amy Fry. College and Research Libraries Pre-Print. December 14, 2016

Does FRBR Meet FRBR’s Objectives?

For the manifestation, the “manifestation identifier” that is listed is most commonly the ISBN. This is an important data element, but I do wonder how often users (including library staff) approach the library catalog with an ISBN in hand (or head). The ISBN is, however, heavily utilized in automated processes, such as duplicate detection and retrieval of cover images from online sources. Because there is no definition of users in the document, it is not possible to know whom the group had in mind for the various data elements, nor can we know if some bibliographic attributes were specifically intended for automated processing.

The statement of responsibility is among the elements that have a moderate role for “find a manifestation.” This is not a heading in library data, and I am confused by the assumptions the FRBR Study Group makes regarding the action of “finding.” In fact, the report does not mention indexing, nor whether there is even an assumption that there are headings. Yet the find action does imply that some ability to search must exist, and the Final Report describes the elements of moderate value for find as those “typically used as a secondary search term.” It isn’t clear what “secondary search term” means, but presumably this is a term that can be used to limit results, as with the use of limiting elements in many catalogs by language, resource type, or other characteristic. The Study Group clearly harbored some implicit assumptions about system capabilities, but what these are is not made clear.

Karen Coyle: Does FRBR Meet FRBR’s Objectives?

Track Changes #28 – Rational Geographic


Aaron: Nobody understands why a gazetteer is important until they suddenly need one and then they’re, like, wait, oh what, how do we…

Paul: That’s been the miracle of the web, to me, right, it’s that you’d be like I want to build this thing  and then you very rapidly stumble into the need for a large set of data with a lot of tasks. Like, I need historical texts or I need a list of places or whatever and it’s just amazing how often you get back to that.

And that whole part of our world is surprisingly untended. Right? And you go, oh get this a list of businesses but it’s from 2010 and no one has adopted it since. I’ve been actually thinking, like there isn’t really, as far as I can tell – maybe you know better than I would, but there’s an idea that I’m going to adopt this open source project, or give this into to the commons, or I’m going to open this thing but there’s no culture of adopting big data sets and taking care of them in the same way as there is as putting things on github and doing releases as open source software… that I know about.



Aaron: I guess the example of people who are doing that are the New York Public Library.

Paul: They are. That’s true.

Aaron: That’s a good example of trying to deal with both just processing the data – whether its the Menus project or the Theatre Bills or Building Inspector…

Paul: Their Labs is very strong…

Aaron: … and then providing tools for letting people work in little atomic units but even then some of it is a question of scale, I mean for all that the NYPL does amazing work they’re pretty reluctant to offer those services outside of New York City.

Paul: No, of course. What’s bugging me is I think that everyone sees code as the infrastructure for creativity and doing new work online, and I think it’s also data, and we don’t really, that’s not a conversation that people really have that much.

Track Changes – Podcast #28: Rational Geographic — Map Chat with Aaron Straup Cope
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Cloud and Field

If ours is the Information Age, it is not the first. A “quantifying spirit” swept the educated classes of 18th century Europe, too, as they confronted the hyperabundance of data in an increasingly globalized world. 1 Explorers were returning from distant lands with new bytes of information — logs, maps, specimens — while, back home, Europeans turned natural history into a leisure pursuit. 2 Hobbyists combed the fields for flowers to press and butterflies to pin. Scientists and philosophers sought rational modes of description, classification, and analysis — in other words, systematicity.

That age belonged to Carl Linnaeus, whose methods we still use to name new species. (Swedish botanist, zoologist, physician: what box should we put him in?) Linnaean classification proved a “godsend to naturalists at sea in the quantity of their own discoveries,” 3 but that was just the start; its “rationality and practicality gave it entrée everywhere.” 4 Researchers applied its systematic logic to the study of everything from chemicals and diseases to machines and algebraic forms.

The craze reached its height, as ours does, with a most protean subject: clouds

Shannon Mattern, “Cloud and Field,” Places Journal, August 2016. Accessed 05 Sep 2016. <>

The Future of the Library: Where it’s at

Future of the Library book cover
The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media
Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan

Chapter 9 : The Compact Library and Human Scale

As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, I (McLuhan) encountered a library in the English Department that had immense advantages. I never have seen one like it since. It consisted of no more than 1,500 or 2,000 books. These books, however, were chosen from many fields of history and aesthetics, philosophy, anthropology, mathematics, and the sciences in general. The one criterion, which determined the presence of any book in this collection, was the immediate and top relevance for twentieth-century awareness.  The shelf-browser could tell at a glance exactly which poets, novelists, critics, painters, and which of their individual writings were indispensable for knowing “where it’s at.”

Where It’s At (It = The Environment)

This remarkable phrase “where it’s at” may be the only one in any language to express the idea of both corporate consensus and sensory focus — a kind of “consensuality” of persons, places, and things in a single instant of awareness.  This phrase, invented by young rock musicians to indicate areas of relevance and aliveness in the present time, is, of course, an acoustic, resonant expression, quite alien to anything like “clock time.” Nothing could be further away from “where’s it at” than “time of day” or “time of year.” The English language has gone without even a corporate word for the French on. Now we have this phrase, which is enormously more sophisticated in its aesthetic range and sensibility.

The library of which I spoke existed in a corner of the English Faculty Library at Cambridge, but it enabled hundreds of students to share all the relevant poets, painters, critics, musicians, and scientists of that time as a basis for an ongoing dialog. Would it not be possible to have similar libraries created by other departments in the university? Could not the History Department indicate those areas of anthropology and sociology that were indispensable to the most advanced historical studies of the hour? Could not the Department of Philosophy pool its awareness of many fields in order to create a composite image of all the relevant of many fields in order to create a composite image of all the relevant speculation and discovery of our time? Only now have I begun to realize that this unique library represented the meeting of both a written and oral tradition at an ancient university. It is this figure-ground pattern of the written and the oral that completes the meaning of the book and the library.

The Future of the Library: A Figure in Many Different Grounds

Future of the Library book cover
The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media
Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan

Chapter 3 : The Library: A Figure in Many Different Grounds

The poets were the librarians of oral society. The very first things that were recorded and preserved by a culture when they acquired the ability to write were its national sags or epics…

The library of the oral society is democratic. Every member has equal access to the information, since the epic poems were recited in public for all to hear. It is only with literacy that learning became the domain of the privileged, those who had the leisure to learn the art of reading and writing.

The library of the oral society stores its information in the collective memory of the entire society. The form of poetry is conductive to memorization through devices such as plot, meter and rhyme. Writing, an extension of man’s memory, actually had a deleterious effect on memory. It created a dependency for its users…

Writing necessitates the library, since it destroys memory.

Every day we seem to piling heaps of ashes on the divine light within us. Men who read the Times every morning or it may be serious works on such different subjects as geology, philology, geography or history are systematically ruining their memories. They are under the suzerainty of books and helpless without them. (Müller, 1901)

Let us trace how the dependency on the book developed. With literacy, the role of the poet as preserver of the culture, passed on to the scribe.