Steampunk Media Ecosystems: On Robert Darnton’s “The Library in the New Age”…

The Arbre de Cracovie
L’arbre de Cracovie,” c. 1742. The Tree of Cracow as depicted in a satirical print. The figure of Truth, on the far left, pulls on a rope to make the tree go “crack” every time something false takes place beneath it. According to the caption, the falsehoods include an innkeeper who claims he does not water down his wine, a merchant who sells goods for no more than what they are worth, a truthful horse dealer, an unbiased poet, etc. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF), 96A 74336.

Our Special Collections librarian, Karen Spencer, recently forwarded the following essay by Robert Darnton entitled “The Library in the New Age” (12th June 2008). The essay stopped me in my tracks and set me investigating…

Robert Darnton’s Earlier Work
Whenever I come across something new to me, I tend to search for the environment that subject resides in. In the case of Robert Darnton, I found his earlier works particularly stimulating. As hinted above, Darnton had also written “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in 18th Century Paris” (Feb 2000), where he juxtaposed the workings of Silicon Valley millennials with the organic communication circuits of forbidden best-sellers of pre-revolutionary France (as seen below, in a beautiful schematic model no less!). Doesn’t it feel steampunk-ish when compared alongside the emerging media ecosystem?

Robert Darnton's An Early Information Society: Schematic model of a communication circuitThe Emerging Media Ecosystem

On “The Library in the New Age”
From being a pioneer in the field of the history of the book, Darnton moved into the realm of electronic publishing. As the head of the Harvard University library, Darnton helped advocate for open access at the University, and became the founder of the Gutenberg-e program. This essay appeared in New York Review of Books and discusses “what it means to be a library in the digital age”…

A quote for the information scientist in you…

Information has never been stable. That may be a truism, but it bears pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively—and even how to appreciate old books.

An of course a quote for the more tactile reader…

Books also give off special smells. According to a recent survey of French students, 43 percent consider smell to be one of the most important qualities of printed books—so important that they resist buying odorless electronic books. CaféScribe, a French on-line publisher, is trying to counteract that reaction by giving its customers a sticker that will give off a fusty, bookish smell when it is attached to their computers.

As you can see, this is a mere sampling of what Robert’s elaborate essay discusses, which is really a reflection of the history and science of information, the digital era (e.g. eBooks, blogs) and the evolving importance of libraries.

Do read his wonderful essay, “The Library in the New Age“. and if you are interested, “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris” which appeared in The American Historical Review (Feb 2000).