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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The degradation of knowledge

    The news that Google will begin making university libraries’ collections available for free online, as reported by the Daily Wildcat Wednesday, ought to send twin chills down the spine of any lover of knowledge. A chill of delight at the prospect of having all that information a click or two away, and a chill of apprehension at the thought of what might ensue.

    After all, once we’ve got all of our books safely stored in the digital realm, it’s only a matter of time until some fast-thinking bureaucrat wonders why we really need to fill five floors with dusty old books. Why, many of those books probably go years without anyone cracking their covers? Why not use those floors for something more valuable, like a new Unity Center?

    It’s impossible, of course, to imagine anyone being so bold to propose something like this just yet. But in a few years, when we’ve become used to the idea of reading books – particularly books for school -ÿonline, it’s hard to imagine that the idea won’t be brought up. Will we still cringe to think of it? Or will we be ready for it?

    And why do we cringe at the idea, anyway? All the information would still be available. Is it just that we can’t abide even the possibility of losing all that knowledge, in the unlikely event of the demise of Google Books? Why should mere sentimental attachment to books keep us from saving money? What do we need libraries for, anyway, when we have the Internet?

    Every now and then you’ll hear someone remark how great it is that the Internet has given everyone in the world total access to information. That’s true in a sense, but they’re likely thinking of something like Wikipedia, every research-weary student’s favorite 2 a.m. resource.

    Like everyone else, I use Wikipedia from time to time, as a reader and even occasional contributor. It’s a handy reference tool – and a free one. It’s also fascinating to see what a random assortment of writers deem the essential facts about a subject:ÿIt’s as if a jury had been convened to decide on the true nature of everything.

    But Wikipedia, for all its wonders, is based on a pretty untenable, if pleasant, notion – the idea that everyone is an expert on everything. The articles range from stunning to appalling, and most of them are as incomplete as a romantic composer’s deathbed symphony.

    Of course, our knowledge has always been incomplete because we collect it according to the whims of our age, which inform us what sort of knowledge is worth collecting in the first place. For centuries, historians thought only to chronicle “”the great deeds of men,”” as Herodotus famously put it. Uncountable millions of people are lost to us forever -ÿlike William Shakespeare, whose life remains a maddening blank to us.

    Today, historians care about anything but “”great deeds,”” preferring to pursue the minutiae of ordinary people and ordinary lives into an infinity of tedium. A student who pursues a career in history is less likely to write about Napoleon than about Napoleon’s toothbrush. We have traded one extreme for another, and still we possess nothing close to the full picture.

    Even if we did have it, it’s unlikely we’d know what to do with it. Contrary to the impression you might have gotten from those videos you dozed through in junior high, humans haven’t always valued the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake. We were pretty cavalier about the Library of Alexandria, destroyed at some point during the first millennium -ÿtellingly, we don’t know the actual cause anymore. There’s not much reason to think we’d do any better today, given the fate of the Baghdad National Library, razed by fire and beset by looters after we invaded Iraq in April 2003.

    If only we’d waited a few years, so they could have preserved those precious antiquities on Google Artifacts.

    Justyn Dillingham is the opinions editor of the Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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