Who is our Einstein? From Librarians to Digitarians…

I’d like to pass on a particular passage that does a very good job of explaining what a library is (or rather has been), of course it takes a physicist to explain something so clearly and so well. From Leon Lederman’s book ‘The God Particle’, p.9…

‘”The Library of Matter:
When explaining the physics of fundamental particles, I often borrow (and embellish on) a lovely metaphor from the Roman poet-philosopher Lecretius. Suppose we are given the task of discovering the most basic elements of a library. What would we do? First we might think of books in various subject categories: history, science biography. Or perhaps we would organise them by size: thick, thin, tall, short. After considering many such divisions we realize that books are complex objects that can be readily subdivided. So we look inside. Chapters, paragraphs, and sentences are quickly dismissed as inelegant and complex constituents. Words! Here we recall that on a table near the entrance there is a fat catalogue of all the words in the library -the dictionary. The same words are used over and over again, and fit together in different ways.
But there are so many words. Further reflection would lead us to letters, since words are ”cuttable.” Now we have it! Twenty-six letters can make the tens of thousands of words, and they can in turn make millions (billions?) of books. Now we must introduce an additional set of rules: spelling, to constrain the the combinations of letters…[etc]”

…Now this is where most people would stop their reasoning and would be quite happy with their explanation of a library (what I would call “a galactic view of knowledge”). And indeed for the past 1000 years we have been happy with this base atomization of the library.

But just as physicists had to throw out their theories of the universe when quantum theory came about, so must librarians need throw out their preconceived architecture of the library so as to enter a new “universal view of knowledge”. The physicist continues with his quote of how physics has changed in the modern era, using the analogy of the library…

”Without the intersection of a very young critic critic we might publish our discovery [of letters being the most base object in a library] prematurely. The young critic would say, smugly no doubt, “you don’t need twenty-six letters, Grandpa. All you need is a zero and a one.” Children today grow up with digital crib toys and are comfortable with computer algorithms that convert zeros and ones to letters of the alphabet. If you are too old for this perhaps you are old enough to remember Morse code, composed of dots and dashes. In either case we now have the sequence: 0 or 1 (or dot and dash) with appropriate code to make the twenty six letters; spelling to make all the words in the dictionary; grammar to compose the words into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and finally, books. And now the books make the library.”

…No wonder it was at a physics laboratory (CERN) that the internet was conceived! The library must embrace the new digital science universe and stop pretending the world is flat (i.e. a book rather than an interactive dynamic multimedia resource) or that the sun revolves around the world (i.e. users come to libraries to read books). Welcome to the new world of information where the digit is what all of information science must be based upon. We as librarians – or rather ‘information scientists’- must actively seek to act as physicists: asking ourselves one simple question “how does the knowledge universe work if based on the digital-atom”?

Of course now that the ‘apple has dropped’ (forgive the physics pun) the librarian is faced with an enormous mountain to climb to explain what this new ‘digital’ atom means. Gone are the days when the atom-letter was the smallest unit, and the librarian was able to define everything larger based on this base unit, hence the word ‘librarian’. Now are the days when everything larger than the digit must be redefined based on this smallest unit of 1 and 0. Of course we have everything to learn from our ancestor librarian, but “librarian” is in great need of revision; we must come to define the new truth based on the digit. Words, spelling, sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books will all be redefined based on the true smallest atomic unit, the digit.

Finally, please do not think I wish to engage in a debate of library vs. computer.  This is not an attack on the library, it is a scientific theory. And like all good scientists, librarians must begin to use the scientific process to refine our knowledge. To use a physicts analogy: Galileo was a librarian, Newton a Digitarian: time to stand on the shoulders of giants once again so we can find our Einstein!

Who is the Library’s “Einstein”?


~ by dfflanders on October 3, 2007.

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