“From the library”

March 26th, 2009 by John

Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, gave an OCLC Distinguished Seminar presentation in Dublin Ohio on Monday of last week. Merrilee has already blogged about it here. I notice that the webcast of the presentation is now available from the Distinguished Seminar Series page. He presented a fascinating perspective on the relationship of the real object to the virtual, as a library like the Bodleian develops both its digitisation programmes and its approaches to exhibiting and exploiting the real treasures it holds.

Among the issues he addressed was the role of the library as an authority. Libraries, he concluded, may have to continue to hold on to original texts because they represent ultimate sources of authority upon which scholarship depends: they are the places to which scholars go to check their references. Later in the day I participated (by videoconference) in a meeting with Richard in which he argued for a development of that authority role. The library need not simply be a passive recipient of the textual requirements of the scholars it serves. It can also take the initiative in suggesting to the academic community where it should consider developing its own research strategies. If a library is particularly rich in collections in certain areas, those areas should be mined by the academic community for their scholarship. This was an interesting take on library assertiveness from a scholarly perspective, and it will surely become a more urgent question as the role of the unique, through the place of special collections in academic librarianship, becomes stronger. What is the scope for research direction coming from the library?

More light was shed on this subject with reference to a much older library even than Oxford’s, in the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time on the Library of Alexandria, broadcast on Thursday 12 March, and now available as a podcast. Melvyn Bragg was joined for this discussion by three classical scholars – Simon Goldhill, Matthew Nichols and Serafina Cuomo. Here, in a discussion among non-librarians, there were a number of curiously contemporary references to ideas discussed by today’s librarians. This, for example, was the first time I have heard hybrid library used of the notion of a library which is a collection both of texts and of people – the scholars who exploit the text. Serafina Cuomo talks of the people as being part of the collection – an idea we are today moving towards in projects such as Digital Lives (led by the British Library) and, indeed, in the notion of what we might think of as the identified user, uniquely associable with a career, citations, expertise, publications, etc.

We are also told that the Library of Alexandria was an instrument of competition – it was pitted by Ptolemy against the Library of Pergamum, for example, and in its role in Greek imperialism it represented a form of warfare fought over knowledge rather than over territory and the bodies of soldiers. There are many Vice Chancellors and Principals in the UK who probably feel they are still recovering from the battlefield of the most recent Research Assessment Exercise.

The role of the catalogue was described. It was a meta-text which did more than simply inventory holdings, but also represented knowledge about texts and so served as a foundation for scholarship. In many ways, the catalogue was the form and symbol of the authority which the library represented. To be a scholar writing from the library was to have scholarly credentials which could not be impugned. In due course, publication records became the credentials, but in the digital networked age the very authority of these records can be hard to assign, as names flood the web and machines create listings and rankings. What persists is a need for authority – the recourse of the scholar in the battlefields of scholarship. Richard made this point in his closing quotation from A.E. Housman, who noted in a footnote correcting an error made by a fellow-scholar: ‘the arsenals of Nemesis are located in the recesses of the Bodleian Library’. And now in its e-spaces …

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