This is a slightly expanded version of my column of news, views and snippets from the international literature of books, libraries, and information, compiled for LIASA-in-Touch, the quarterly newsletter of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA)
Virtual or real?
As contemporary librarians we devote a lot of our attention and reflection to virtual things: digital delivery of web-based resources, digital courses, meetings, services… whole libraries are today virtual, so much so that virtual has become the default in much of our professional discourse. But non-virtual, concrete, touchable things like physical books and flesh-and-blood library users who come to a real reference desk are also still around, and today I’ll concentrate on these. As an aside, when I started wondering how to refer to non-virtual things, I turned to the website Wordhippo.com to find over a hundred antonyms listed for the various meanings of the adjective ‘virtual’. ‘Real’ seems to the simplest choice, although, of course, you can have really virtual stuff and virtual reality…
Collections of physical books remain an important part of what we do. In 2017, after living and working in the UK, British-Ghanaian author Sylvia Arthur moved back to Ghana and established there her Library for Africa and the African Diaspora. Her personal collection of around 4,000 literary works forms the nucleus of what she conceives of as a “decolonised library” aiming to showcase the works of African authors and authors from the African diaspora. The library is run on a commercial basis and books can be borrowed by subscription. You can see her talking about it in a brief BBC video clip.
Half a world away, in California, the Michelson Cinema Research Library has been donated to the Internet Archive by film researcher Lillian Michelson, now 92 years old, who founded it more than 50 years ago. The library contains a treasure trove of over a million books, photos, periodicals and cuttings, and it was an invaluable source of reference and inspiration for filmmakers, all the more indispensable as the big film studios gradually phased out their own research libraries. Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, has undertaken to preserve the original materials and digitize them so that they can be made generally available
The Michelson Collection will join a wealth of special collections that form part of the Internet Archive. These include fascinating resources such the Folksonomy: a Library of Sound, an MS-DOS software library (for those who started playing with computers in the 1980s), and a collection of 78 RPM gramophone and cylinder recordings from the early 20th century (is there still anyone out there who remembers listening to a Mahler symphony on a dozen 78 RPM gramophone records?) Wonderful examples of real stuff being made virtual. Browse the collections on the Internet Archive site.
By contrast, consider the purchase for over ZAR 6 million of just one copy of a novel published in 1913. The French writer Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is famous for just one novel – a massive work published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927. À la recherche du temps perdu (in search of lost time) is written in the first person and can be described as an extended meditation on memory, literature, love, and the passing of time. It is one of the most influential works of twentieth century literature. The first volume was prescribed form my honours degree in French back in the late 1960s. In France Proust’s novel is a cultural treasure and a source of national pride, so much so that the Bibliothèque nationale de France (the National Library of France) raised €350,000 Euros to acquire a copy of the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann. The reason for the extravagance: in this copy Proust had hand-written a lengthy and informative letter of dedication to one of his friends. This makes it a significant addition to the library’s fine collection of Proust’s manuscripts and editions and an important source of information for literary scholars. Would that we in South Africa had the resources to ensure that the manuscripts and archives of our famous authors could be preserved here in our own national institutions and not end up in overseas research libraries! This is an issue Hannes Britz and I discussed in a paper on “Information imperialism” (Lor and Britz 2004). The French national library used crowd-funding to keep this item in France. Could that work here, I wonder?
When you want to page through a fragile volume in a rare book collection in a research library, you have to don white gloves, not so? No, not really. In an interesting blog post on the website of the Smithsonian libraries – which also gives access to a wealth of resources, Alexandra Alvis gives historical background on their use. She reveals that (except in the case of photographs and certain other materials) cotton gloves can do more harm than good. Clean dry hands are better.
Sweaty fingers and cotton threads are just two of the threats that rare book librarians have to deal with. Another enemy of books is all around us: light. A blog post on the website of the Royal Library of Belgium explains why manuscripts that are placed on display, are removed from view after six months to go back to storage. All wavelengths are harmful to paper, especially ultraviolet and infrared radiation, but even visible light, without which we can’t see, has to be rationed to prevent damage. After six months’ exposure to light, manuscripts have to rest for six years.
Virtual resources are ubiquitous. In fact, all the items I cited above are available virtually. Lockdowns deprive the public of real visits to zoos, museums and art galleries as well as to libraries. This has accelerated the digitization of museum and art collections. A notable example, but one of many, is the Musée du Louvre in Paris. One of the world’s top art galleries, the Louvre has so far digitized over 480,000 items and made them accessible on a new platform, which attracted 21 million visitors in 2020.
As mentioned in earlier columns, the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of virtual access to educational, cultural and research resources, including research data. This is certainly true for medical researchers working against the clock to understand the virus and develop therapies and vaccines. Francesca Cavallaro and colleagues discuss the lessons the pandemic has taught us about improving access to data. UNESCO has emphasized the importance of open access to inform and update citizens, and the need for international cooperation to facilitate this.
In the meantime, many organizations and governments are working towards expanding open access to scientific and scholarly publications generally. The Netherlands is one of the furthest advanced countries in this respect. In 2020 around 75% of all research articles by Dutch authors were published on open access. The Netherlands national programme for open access together with an association of universities commissioned a feasibility study into 100% open access. This resulted in three reports – in Dutch but with extensive English management summaries – by Maurits van der Graaf and Rob Johnson, which are well worth reading for their detailed and insightful discussion of economic and institutional factors influencing scholarly publishing and affecting progress towards open access (Van der Graaf 2021; Van der Graaf and Johnson 2021a, 2021b).
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated an ongoing transition of scholarship from real to virtual. Virtual resources have been a great boon to us in this time of lockdowns. ‘Normal’ will never come back, but I hope that we will still be privileged to see, smell and touch real stuff in the future.
Lor, Peter Johan, and Johannes J Britz. 2004. ‘Information Imperialism: Moral Problems in Information Flows from South to North’. In Information Ethics in the Electronic Age: Current Issues in Africa and the World, edited by Tom Mendina and Johannes J Britz, 15–21. Jefferson NC: McFarland.
Van der Graaf, Maurits. 2021. Alternatieve Open Access publicatieplatformen als change agents van het publiceren [Alternative open access publication platforms as change agents for publication]. Amsterdam: Pleiade Management and Consultancy. https://www.vsnu.nl/files/documenten/Domeinen/Open_Access/Alternatieve%20platformen%20als%20change%20agents%20van%20het%20publiceren%20versie%201.0.pdf.
Van der Graaf, Maurits, and Rob Johnson. 2021a. Naar 100% open access voor Nederlandse onderzoekspublicaties: academische boeken [Toward 100% open access for Netherlands research publications: academic books]. Amsterdam: Pleiade Management and Consultancy. https://docplayer.nl/205423757-Naar-100-open-access-voor-nederlandse-onderzoekspublicaties-academische-boeken.html..
———. 2021b. Naar 100% open access voor Nederlandse onderzoekspublicaties: tijdschriftartikelen [Toward 100% open access for Netherlands research publications: journal articles]. Amsterdam: Pleiade Management and Consultancy. https://www.vsnu.nl/files/documenten/Domeinen/Onderzoek/Open%20access/Naar%20100%20procent%20Open%20Access%20-%20tijdschriftartikelen.pdf.