Post-421: A defense of libraries

From a late-July 2021 interview with Niall Ferguson by prolific economics blogger and sometimes-professor Tyler Cowen. The interviewee just throws a series of questions with little framing or fluff or sidebar-ing and Ferguson has to deal with them as best he can. (As usual the British are better at this kind of thing.)

I want to highlight his answer on libraries but I’ll add in the preceding and following questions for the feel of how the interview went:

COWEN: What’s your favorite bridge in Glasgow?

FERGUSON: There’s a bridge over the River Kelvin near the school where I went, Glasgow Academy, which might be boringly called the Kelvin Bridge. I forget its name, but it’s a lovely spot. Glasgow’s a rather beautiful city. You might be surprised to hear me say that, but the area around the university and the place where my school was has the River Kelvin. That bridge is one that I associate with, yes, walking to and from school in all weathers.

COWEN: It’s such a great tragedy that the Macintosh Library burned down.

FERGUSON: Yes, libraries are really a crucial part of my life because, without the public libraries, I would not have been able to read as much as I did as a kid. If I hadn’t been sent to the Mitchell Library as a schoolboy, I wouldn’t have understood that history was this unmanageable quantity of data. I remember seeing the shelf of books about the Thirty Years War. I’d been asked to write an essay on the Thirty Years War. I went to the Mitchell Library, and there were all the books on the Thirty Years War. And it hit me, “Oh my God, there are just hundreds of them.”

That was when the challenge of history suddenly gripped me, that there was this vast, almost unmanageable body of literature to read on any topic. So, libraries, yes. Libraries are better than Google. Very important because libraries sort the material in a way that is honest, and Google sorts it in a way that’s designed to sell ads to you.

I think libraries — they are sacred places. Isn’t it funny? Think back: The way that print evolved as a technology produced an enormous amount of content that was not selling ads, and libraries ended up as the organizing institutions of information with a system of cataloging that wasn’t designed to do anything other than get you to associate the book you were reading with the other books that were related to it. I think library cataloging systems are a much-underrated contribution to our civilization.

COWEN: If we look back at the great thinkers of the past and ask ourselves who produced the strongest defense of liberalism — liberalism in the broad sense of that word — it could be John Stuart Mill or Hayek or Burke or Tocqueville. For you personally, who is it?

FERGUSON: Tocqueville —

COWEN: Why?

FERGUSON: — has always resonated with me much more than Mill, and more than Hayek too. I think that’s partly an Oxford story. As an undergraduate, we were required to read Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime in French in our first term. My French wasn’t that good, so it was quite hard work, but the conversations about that book that I remember having — not only with my tutor, Angus Macintyre, but with my near-contemporary, Andrew Sullivan — were very seminal.

The realization that Tocqueville’s idea of liberty is something that has to be protected by nonobvious means, by things that you might not, as a liberal, even approve of — that’s a fascinating insight. Then, when we read Democracy in America, it became even clearer what Tocqueville’s project was, which was to show why France had failed to be or could not be the United States, and why American liberty had a very distinctive set of institutional supports.

To highlight the core of Niall Ferguson’s off-the-cuff defense of libraries:

Libraries are better than Google. Very important because libraries sort the material in a way that is honest, and Google sorts it in a way that’s designed to sell ads to you.

I think libraries — they are sacred places. Isn’t it funny? Think back: The way that print evolved as a technology produced an enormous amount of content that was not selling ads, and libraries ended up as the organizing institutions of information with a system of cataloging that wasn’t designed to do anything other than get you to associate the book you were reading with the other books that were related to it. I think library cataloging systems are a much-underrated contribution to our civilization.

Ferguson is twenty-some years older than I but I have had many of the same thoughts. I have also often chewed over the idea of what we can date the start of the Internet Era. In the sense we now understand the Internet, I think this may be 2010 or so. The Internet Era as we understand it exists in the 2010s without doubt, but not quite in the 2000s, and definitely not in the 1990s—even if the technology existed.

Ferguson, as a prolific academic and by the 2000s or so certainly qualifying as a transatlantic public intellectual, no doubt was an early adopter and for him the Internet Era began some notches earlier than for the median person, but that still doesn’t change the fact that the infrastructure was not there. However may notches earlier he “adopted” than the median educated Western person, he encountered the Internet Era as an adult, certainly in his thirties. I therefore expect many would dismiss his defense of libraries as that of someone simply spinning his top in nostalgia for his 1970s-era childhood and adolescence and 1980s-era young adulthood, and 1990s-era early careerhood.

What does it say about me that I have had many of the same ideas?

The mass shutdown and/or severe restriction on libraries has also been one of the highly disappointing things during the Neverending Flu Virus Panic of the past two years, which dug in deep into something political and therefore found fuel for its fire. What were they thinking? Even major research libraries were simply folded up and closed indefinitely, with no access of any kind. This was true even of my graduate school library and many others. The Library of Congress finally reopened in June 2021 but remained subject to difficult and annoying restrictions disruptive to any productive work.

One of the reasons they were able to get away with closing libraries — and by extension most other places — is the weakness of true commitment to the Niall Ferguson view of libraries as sacred places. Even those who administer libraries, in many cases may just view them as elaborate museums, and if you want to do some kind of research, there’s all this available on the Internet so stop your whining. I could write much more on this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

13 + 3 =