Technology and the Library

The most significant invention of the last thousand years — at least in my view — is the invention in the 1400’s of movable type and the printing press. This innovation allowed the production of books at a low cost, a cost so low that it enabled the mass distribution of information to the general general public for the first time.

That innovation led to another innovation, for a place had to be found to house and categorize those books. That innovation was the modern library as we know it today.

These innovations have led to the other innovations and discoveries that have shaped the course of our civilization ever since.

Here are just a few of the numerous inventions that relate directly to printing and libraries:

  • The Typewriter
  • The Linotype
  • The High-Speed Printing Press
  • Microfilm Cameras and Viewers, including Microfiche
  • The Xerox Copier and its descendants

Each is of course worthy of one or more posts on its own, but for now let me just remark on two of them: the typewriter and the copier.

I first visited Russia in late 1973, just a few days after the end of the Yom Kippur Way. My wife and I traveled alone. I had enough Russian that we didn’t need to rely on a tour-guide and translator, though we did have to pay exhorbitant rates for hotel accomodations and the occasional official tour.

For the large part we fended by ourselves. For example, we met a young couple while taking the train from Moscow to what was then called Leningrad, and is now known as St. Petersberg. They offered to take us on a tour of Leningrad, and we met them about 8PM near the Peter-and-Paul Statue. Their car stopped suddenly, and we were whisked inside. We then sped off, and I started to worry a bit, as I knew no one else would know where we had gone, or with whom.

It turns out they just wanted to talk about America, but they knew the authorities strongly discouraged contact with foreigners, especially Americans.

We also visited some of my wife’s relatives in Kiev. Both her parents were born in Russia, and each came from large families. The families were separated according to the age of the men. Those of age that could serve in the military had to stay behind; the younger ones could leave. We were met at the Kiev train station by the descendants of those who had to stay behind; there were about forty of them.

It was during a visit to one of their homes that I first saw real samizdat, “underground” writings prepared by using a typewriter and carbon paper. That was the only technology available to most writers, for the few copying machines then within the Soviet Union were carefully locked up and guarded.

I also recall once, while sitting in a relative’s living room, asking if any of them ever went to the Synagogue. They refused even to answer, while in their own home, for fear the conversation might be overheard. It was then I first fully appreciated that Anti-semitism was a worldwide phenomenon, not one confined to Germany and Austria.

In the last few decades we have seen the arrival of a host of new techologies, technologies that will over the course of time have a collective impact as great as that of the printing press:

  • The computer
  • Disk drives that have now grown so cheap as to be essentially free
  • The Internet
  • The Web
  • Digitized information: pictures, photos, recordings, films, and so forth
  • The laser printer
  • The XO Laptop (the most recent arrival, and a harbinger of world-wide access to computing) techology
  • Wireless

A key part of many of these technologies is software. For example, most of Lexmark’s printers use Linux to drive the printing engine.

And thus a key question is how to best make use of that software to help our librarians, especially the software that is available in free and open-source form, since libraries — as is the case with our schools — never receive the funding and recognition that should be their due.

I wish I had the answers. I don’t yet, but I do know that I plan to spend as much time as I can in the coming years seeking ways to apply open technologies such as open-source, open-standards, and — especially — open document formats, in order to assist educators and librarians in their vital mission.

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