George Norlin, a former CU president, emblazoned this admonishment by Cicero on my undergraduate university’s library. Like the person who shot this photo, I admittedly spent no time here until my junior year, and as much as I love libraries, this one is still a maze of architectural pastiche, ridden with half-floors, secreted sections, and hairpin call-number shifts. For that reason, I think the librarians in Norlin understand what Cicero was talking about. Right underneath this gem is a quote by Norlin himself:
Given the labyrinthine depths that were rumored to be within, this one read like a dare, the sticking-out-his-tongue-at-you from a man who didn’t know how appropriate his words would one day become. Norlin (the library) provides you with views from the stacks that looked at what used to be the backside of the old building. You used to have to wind your way though tattered government documents to get to one computer lab, and to get to the other, you walked past either special collections or the children’s literature section. The new information commons rectified these issues, but the library still has jarring juxtapositions. It’s still an interesting place to read visually, as new library furniture settles down next to the wrought-iron window frames of the old exterior. This is not to romanticize the old. This is not to champion the new. Steven Johnson’s 1997 book, Interface Culture:
From its outset this book has been conceived as a kind of secular response to the twin religions of techno-boosterism and techno-phobia. On the most elemental level, I see it as a book of connections, a book of links — one in which desktop metaphors cohabit with Gothic cathedrals, and hypertext links rub shoulders with Victorian novels. Like the illuminations of McLuhan’s electric speed, the commingling of traditional culture and its digital descendants should be seen as a cause for celebration, and not outrage.
Thanks to Snarkmarket for the tip. I love the Norlin Library because it does just that. In reading Ann Blair’s book on Latin reference books, she makes the argument that many of the fears and complaints we have about new technologies are roughly the same as others had back then, which also echos Johnson’s sentiments:
The story of the management of textual information in personal notes and printer reference books, 1500-1700, could be presented as a decline narrative from the heights of great learning to an increasing reliance on shortcuts and substitutes, or alternatively, as a triumphalist account of new methods of democratized and made increasingly sophisticated. Similarly, among those reflecting on the current and future developments, the doomsayers on the one hand and the info-boosters on the other often seem to be the loudest voices. -Blair, Too Much to Know, p.267.
But what Blair finally argues is that these works “designed innovative methods of managing textual information in an era of exploding publications to which our own methods of reading and processing information are indebted.” (268) I would argue not only are we indebted to them for the methods, but also for the outlook: that new ways of managing information are not worth stressing out about, that innovation is shaky but helpful, and by looking at how things were done in the past, we can occasionally devise new ways of working for the future. There’s a lot of hoopla over new and “unprecedented” modes of communication, but I believe that a thoughtful understanding of the past will give a much better idea of how people actually use information and knowledge as opposed to how the creators of such products would like them to. Likewise, slavish obsession to the past isn’t going to actually solve new problems. As George’s library ended up, all of these things need to exists side-by-side in unexpected ways. It’s time to grow up.