Thursday, January 04, 2007

Avatars of the Word: from papyrus to cyberspace

Elise Friedland recommended this book to me (although once I started reading it I realized I had read at least parts of it before. Does that ever happen to you?) James J. O'Donnell published it in 1998 and his ideas about the impact of the digital revolution (if that is what it is) have stood up remarkably well.
Find it in the Olin Library at PROSHELF P96.T42 O36 1998. O'Donnell is an scholar of late antiquity, St. Augustine in particular. He is also interested in Cassiodorus. The book relates what we are living through now to the move from orality to literacy and from the scroll to the codex. Along the way O'Donnell discusses libraries, the liberal arts, the future of higher education, amongst other things. He intersperses these chapters with short pieces he calls "hyperlinks" on issues like the "How does Teaching Work" and "The Instability of the Text." It is one of those books that sparks lots of ideas. I particularly like how he ends the book because I think it speaks to what we as librarians need to do.

"Cassiodorus chose a course that succeeded in placing some new wine in old bottles. He used the instruments, the habits, and the cultural expectations of the old Roman culture in which he had been brought up to do new things, create a new kind of library. He is not a savior of western civilization, nor should any of us expect to be. He is rather a single responsible individual helping shape to the limits of his ability the institutions and the cultural tools that his world needed. That he accepted and thrived on the disruption of his life and expectations, and that he succeeded in using his past and his expectations so resourcefully to help him shape a future , are lessons we can all take away with us."

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