The Web Is an Instrument

The question often comes up whether we are losing our ability to think in a complex, in-depth manner with the gradual shift to electronic sources. As we try to balance paper and electronic formats for legal research tools, it is something we do need to consider. This seems to be an underlying idea in some of the comments that have come up from Michael Line’s post about the legal research training tools being developed in B.C. earlier this week.

Since Simon Fodden is professing his love for information, I will state the equally obvious and tell you that: I love books. Forget the electronic, cyberspace Connie larger than life via bytes and blogs; my love for books got me into library work and continues as a passion. So, it is not surprising that I have just read the fantastic book by Alberto Manguel The Library at Night which Wendy Reynolds suggested as a good read. It is largely about library as place rather than about library services (which is mostly where my head is at work), so I found the comments he makes about the electronic world real food for thought since they come from another perspective.

Let me share these excerpts, from pages 227 and 228:

Commenting in 2004 on the usefulness of the Web as a creative tool, the celebrated American comic-strip artist Will Eisner explained that, when he first discovered this electronic medium, he believed it to be an almost magical source of new artistic inventions, but that of late it had become ‘merely a supermarket to which consumers come to look for the cheapest possible product.’

This sleight of hand is achieved every time a reader locks onto the Web, by stressing velocity over reflection and brevity over complexity, preferring snippets of news and bytes of facts over lengthy discussions and elaborate dossiers, and by diluting informed opinion with reams of inane babble, ineffectual advice, inaccurate facts and trivial information, made attractive with brand names and manipulated statistics.

But the Web is an instrument. It is not to blame for our superficial concern with the world in which we live. Its virtue is in the brevity and multiplicity of its information; it cannot also provide us with concentration and depth. The electronic media can assist us (do in fact assist us) in a myriad of practical ways, but not in all, and can’t be held responsible for that which they are not meant to do. The Web will not be the container of our cosmopolitan past, like a book, because it is not a book and will never be a book, in spite of the endless gadgets and guises invented to force it into that role. Nor can it be in any useful sense a universal library, in spite of such ambitious programs as the Google project and the earlier Project Gutenberg (PG)…

Neither will the Web lend us bed and board in our passage through this world, becuase it is neither a resting place nor a home, neither Circe’s cave nor Ithaca. We alone, not our technologies, are responsible for our losses, and we alone are to blame when we deliberately choose oblivion over recollection. We are, however, adroit at making excuses and dreaming up reasons for our poor choices.

Really, if you love books and libraries you should read this book. Manguel has such a wonderful way of elevating our mundane world. I like that he doesn’t discount the Web outright, but tries to look at it in a more balanced (and poetic) way.


  1. Just so long as it’s understood, Connie, that my love for information doesn’t preclude my own (even larger) love for books, too… and wine, and Cuba, and pea soup and, well, any number of things. There’s a danger that people will say “either or” about people and things. Notice that even Manguel, who is a great writer, I agree, tends to dichotomize things, which I think isn’t necessary at all. As for the “web” and any disillusionment with it: the web is large enough now, and widespread enough, that it is a “plane” of the world. And as with the world, so with the web: you can find all manner of goodness and trash there. But I’m clear, as I hope everyone is, that things on the web don’t smell, taste, or have lovely half-calf bindings and a heft in the hand that is simply perfect.

  2. It is probably no surprise that I agree with you, Connie. I cannot even guess at the number of books I have been involved in publishing over my life in this business–1000?, 5000?–who knows? But I still get a feeling akin to the one described at the end of Simon’s post when each new book arrives (although I’m not sure about the ‘taste’), as he says, ‘simply perfect.’

  3. A little Twain in Simon today:

    ” …the web is large enough now, and widespread enough, that it is a “plane” of the world. And as with the world, so with the web: you can find all manner of goodness and trash there.”

    nice quote.

    And thankfully, on any given day, we can find all levels of that goodness. :-) Right Mark?

    (And P.S. Contrary to popular opinion, I love books too.)

  4. I have read Manguel’s previous work on “The History of Reading” and was disappointed. The writing was good, but ther was too much subjective opinion offered as objective fact. I haven’t read this new title, but I have seen reviews, and one this basis I agree with Simon that he pushes the “either or” issue too much. LIke Jeff and Connie, I like books, I even sort of collect some of them. I think it is helpful to help understand the present shift in information creation and transmission from print to electronic by separating off the form in which the informatin is stored from the text of that information. This is hard for most of us to do, if you think of paperbacks like classic penguins and their covers. A good book to help in this is Anthony Rota, “Apart from the Text” Private Libraries Association: Oak Knoll Press, 1998, which is out of print so somewhat hard to find. I can also reccomend Fred Lerner, “The Story of Libraries: from the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age” Contiuum: New York, 1999.

    I’ll be in New York next week, so you can bet I’ll be checking out bookstores and NYPL.