Research | Writing | Digital Humanities | Biblical Studies

Reflecting on Le Donne's Reflection on Internet Media vs. Bricks and Mortar Libraries

Anthony Le Donne reflects on a TEDs talk he recently listened to, particularly raising important issues about the effect of shifts in media on culture. I’ve thought a lot about how shifts to online and social media might impact biblical studies in the next generation (and its not all negative, just as previous shifts in media have had their pros and cons, so to speak). Contrasting bricks and mortar libraries with online media, Le Donne says:

But I have felt a particular loss of serendipity with my dot com explorations. Case in point: this book caught my eye while I was in the Durham University library once upon a time and it changed my life. … If I had not found the brilliant work of Fentress and Wickham I would have been tempted to mirror my PhD supervisor’s contributions to the field.

Yet I don’t see how a bricks and mortar library gives more opportunities for ‘chance’ findings of life-changing (=view changing?) books than, say, subscribing to blogs of credentialed persons/institutions (e.g., academic presses, departmental blogs [like Univ. of X’s history dept.], academic digest-style blogs [like “What’s new in papyrology“], etc.), setting up google alerts for certain topics, books, etc., or tracking a libraries recent acquisitions list online (I have twice recently had nice “serendipitous” book finds).

Further, how does one measure serendipity or compare it in the way implied above? One might argue that the internet provides abundantly more such experiences.

Le Donne goes on to raise an important point about media shift and culture:

I am not saying that traditions must be maintained at all costs, but I will say that seismic shifts like the internet require culture shapers (what might be called remembrancers) to think long and hard about the consequences just around the corner.  When I go to a theological library I participate in a cathedral of memory.  By participating, I reinforce my membership in a specific culture.  It doesn’t really matter what sort of book I pick up or which word I find serendipitously.  The choice to explore commemorative space is an identity-reinforcing act.  When I surf the internet, I am doing something else entirely… and I’m not quite sure what sort of identity I will find for myself.  It very well might mean a lack of identity.

It’s surely true that the shift in media reflects (or will lead to) a shift in culture, just as past experiences (remembrances?) of such shifts tell us. But I’m not sure we can predict the consequences of current media shifts, nor stop them if we become worried about those consequences.

And my favorite thought-provoking line:

Libraries commemorate civilization in a way that the internet cannot.

Is this primarily because libraries are more concrete, stationary ‘landmarks’ of civilization vs. digital/online media?

Because digital media is really bits of information stored and read by computers, one does wonder about the durability of such media. But libraries and print media have always had a “shelf-life,” too.

Both print and digital media have limited durability. Both require physical entities for communicating information: Print media requires ink, paper, and certain human senses and abilities just as digital media requires bits of data, a machine to process the data, and certain human senses and abilities.

I suppose digital media is more fragile than print media since it needs a complex machine for processing, and since one can imagine that in a (catastrophic) event which results in humanity’s inability to access digital media of the past (like Y2K :)) one still has the ability find materials with which to write.

What do you think?

[Update: Anthony and I have discussed some of the issues I raise here in the comments section at his blog, so if you’re interested in some push back to what I’ve said, take a look.]

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