Introductory Remarks


One hundred years ago, under the administration and vision of the learned Jesuit Franz Ehrle, the Vatican Library was transformed. Ehrle stands with his contemporary, Antonio Panizzi of the British Library, as the pair of geniuses who created the modern library as we know it today. Under Ehrle, the Vatican Library became one of the best-organized libraries in the world. This brilliant man also brought the Vatican’s great manuscript collections together and acquired the famous Borghese and Barberini collections. It was Ehrle who elevated the scholarly reputation of the Vatican Library, employing manuscript specialists, the scriptores, and initiating major scholarship.

One longs to know Ehrle’s thoughts as he looked at the new century before him, just as we look today at the one we have entered. Ehrle had one great advantage over us: the stability of the transmission of the word. For over 400 years, this transmission of knowledge had changed little, and there were no prospects on the horizon to suggest major upheavals in the library world. Since Gutenberg, Europe had lived in a culture grounded in the book, and Ehrle and his colleagues never had to entertain the prospect of its demise. Today, however, we are told by some that we are the last survivors of the book culture, of the printed word. Ivan Illich, in his brilliant treatise on Hugh of St. Victor’s medieval text, tells us: “The book has now ceased to be the root-metaphor of the age; the screen has taken its place. The alphabetic text has become but one of many modes of encoding something, now called ‘the message.’” Even if Illich is too anxious to call the book peripheral to our age, he poignantly suggests a major shift in the book’s cultural significance. It is appropriate that we ponder today the fate of the book and the library in light of current technological changes.

It is apparent now that the library as an institution is not merely a shrine to knowledge, a source of human wisdom, a repository of texts embracing everything significant in human understanding. It is all this and more; it has now come to be seen as a hub in a complex, expanding information network in which knowledge seems infinite, where it is beyond our conception to imagine Francis Bacon just 500 years ago claiming all knowledge as his domain. Now one feels more affinity with St. Bonaventure when, in defining the absolute, he anticipated cyberspace: an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere. Bonaventure was a man before his time. 

In this newer formulation of the library as informational hub, resources seem elastic, exploding periodically as different users tap the potential of the network. Indeed, the “collection” resides not wholly in the assemblage of texts but in this potentiality, which is the function of the rapidly changing technology of information. This change from shrine to hub, and all that it implies, is truly paradigmatic. Today’s library is both a symbol of learning and a center of the technological revolution. 

For the next two days, we will review again the role of the library and the book in our culture, as well as the nature of this technological revolution as it affects libraries and learning, and ultimately texts and reading itself. Will these new technologies, with all their innovation and achievement, transform civilization as fundamentally as Gutenberg’s invention of movable type? This is merely one of the questions we will explore at this conference.

Technology is a valuable and integral component in the future of libraries, but we must question whether digitization should overtake the importance of the book and manuscript as physical objects, valuable in their inherent form.

The heart of this matter for me is the particular relationship between the library and the disciplines we study, especially the humanities. There is no reason why Joyce’s Ulysses cannot be called up and read on a server,
as it is “on-line” in several different versions. But there is every reason to read Ulysses in book form. With the physical volume in our hand, we are nevertheless aware of the substantiality, the reality of the work. The book is the reality; there is no virtual reality here. Each page of Ulysses, each line of the page, has a distinctness, a hard reality of its own. Holding the book is a different experience from reading and scrolling on the screen. The medium of the word is not made flesh; it is too fluid, too mobile and volatile, to encourage sustained effort of thought. We can amass facts, but in doing so, are we inhibited from thinking seriously about ideas? Do we not lose that potential quality from reading a book that Alfred Kazin called “the marginal suggestiveness which in a great writer always indicates those unspoken reserves, that silent assessment of life, that can be heard below and beyond the slow marshaling of

Some have argued that digitization will be the demise of special collections, for they question the need for reading rooms when rare books and manuscripts are readily available in digital form on the web. Last spring, at the Ransom Humanities Research Center, we digitized our Gutenberg Bible and made it accessible on the Web. In merely three months, it received over 14.6 million hits. Now, we would not have had anything to digitize without the physical text of the Gutenberg Bible, and yet we would not have been able to reach 14.6 million people had the book not been available in digital form. We could not have had one without the other—the text first and then the technology, in that order. We must bring both together, however. There will always be a place for physical archives and manuscripts in our special collections, and the future of books and libraries certainly includes digitization as a large component. We must find ways to integrate the use of the physical and digital forms; we must make these modes function together in a complementary manner. And, as Jerome McGann argued not too long ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education, we must rely on the book to ease the transition into a digital age. He says:

Because the book has been our simulation machine of choice for centuries, we need to study and understand it now more than ever—not as a place of retreat, but as a profound source, and resource—at a moment when we are trying to design and control digital simulation tools. . . . The passage into digital culture should be made—can only be made, in my opinion—through a reengagement with print culture. It must and will be so because, like Aeneas passing from Troy to Latium, we cannot leave our household gods behind.

I believe that the past and the present can exist harmoniously in special-collections libraries. We must use digital technology to enhance and expand scholarly inquiry. Yet it is only the analogic mind that holds the implacable conviction that each new invention will substitute rather than complement what already exists. Although rare materials will be more accessible to researchers on-line, we must encourage researchers to look to both digital and physical sources for their material to ensure that use of the physical archive, and all the detritus that comes with it, is not entirely abandoned to a digital scan.

There is also another subject that will be discussed today: the book as object. As Joan Winterson has written, “If you love books as objects, as totems, as talismans, as doorways, as genie bottles, as godsends, as living things, then you love them widely. This binding, that paper. Strange company kept. Like women, the most exciting have had a lively past.” The book is indeed more than its covers, and we salute whatever else it has become.

And today we enter the world of the book, the world of libraries, and the world of new avenues of information.