Taking full advantage of the ability to work from anywhere with an internet connection, I’ve been living it up in London recently. I’m sharing a space much smaller than I’m used to with my girlfriend while I’m here, so I’ve been leaving to work from cafés much more than normal. Yesterday, I gave the British Library a shot.
For those unfamiliar with it, the middle of the main gallery in the library is the King’s Library Tower (not my photo). The structure is not unlike what other high-profile information stores look like, and the general arrangement of volumes stacked as tight as possible on shelves is unchanged. Beyond that, the thing that strikes me about King George III’s library is that it’s largely a reference collection. It’s not rare and exotic books for collecting the books; it’s an honest attempt to collect a large body of human knowledge (much like some modern institutions). We could certainly store scanned images of all those pages here at SpiderOak, and have space left over for
intern storage innovative new things in the rack cabinet.
But it’s not about that, is it? A few 2 TB drives full of TIFFs and the OCR output? The books, and the tower they’re contained in, represent human history and progress in a way that a USB thumbdrive can never present. These books are still in circulation at the British Library. There’s certainly a place for the fully-indexed computerized system, but not here. In this information age, many of us idolize books as containers of knowledge, imperfect as they are. They burn. They get soggy and decay. You can easily break their bindings, scattering the pages to the wind. You can’t back it up to SpiderOak!
On the other side, they force you to consider them. Not just a single book here or there that can be set aside, but a big stack of books that force you to consider them. What are they? They’re fragile containers of what makes us human. They make us consider the very basis of what we think, how we think it, and what we’ve already thought of, and force it into our consciousness through their physicality that nothing else can match. It is humbling and awe-inspiring by turns, and in a way, they mirror us as they imortalize us.