The Wonders of the Bodleian

There is a wonderful opinion piece in the London Times that talks about the treasures of the Oxford Bodleian Library.  The author starts with a bit of historical context, and then goes on to describe how things have changed:

King Charles I once asked the chief librarian of the Bodleian Library in Oxford if he could borrow a book. He was told, politely, to get lost. A few years later, as the wheel of history turned, Oliver Cromwell also wondered if he might take a book away from the great collection, to read it at his leisure. He received exactly the same answer.

Roundhead or cavalier, king or commoner, no one could take a book out of the library. Its books were not for lending, but for consulting. The library was a temple of learning, where scholars might come to read and learn. The books stayed put.

But no longer. Today I can select any one of hundreds of thousands of digitised books from the Bodleian, including some of its rarest treasures, and read them on a computer screen. I can do this when the library is closed. I can do it without authorisation. I can do it from Antarctica, so long as I have an internet link.

The Bodleian is one of the libraries being digitized by Google, and the author couldn’t be happier.  His opinion is that the availability of these resources online will create a resurgence of interest in libraries.  Most of the opinions I’ve read up until now tend to lean the opposite direction – that the online resources will make libraries obsolete.  I rather like this version better.

Through the internet, the library doors are suddenly thrown open to the widest possible readership, genuinely fulfilling Thomas Bodley’s aim to make collected books “available to the whole republic of the learned”.

So far from driving readers from libraries and on to the internet, digital collections are likely to have the reverse effect. Just as televised football matches revitalised live football, so the chance to see and sample great literature on the web will encourage more people to go in search of the real thing.

Interesting.  He goes on:

Libraries die when people forget what is in them: they thrive when we are reminded of their riches, and so far from eroding our physical contact with ancient books, the great online library currently amassing its collection will surely revive that relationship.

There is still no tactile pleasure to compare with opening an old book: the gust of vellum and parchment, the knowledge of countless eyes tracing the page before you, the marginalia, the chance to hold some knowledge in your hand.

The internet will never replicate that experience (just as no technology has been able to supplant the paper book, of which we are reading more than ever), but it can help, immeasurably, to lead us to it.

From his mouth to God’s ears, as my grandmother would say.  What a refreshing take on the digitization of library materials!  Perhaps, instead of fearing this new technology, we should embrace it as a chance to show off the wonders available at libraries.

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