The Ignorant Library

I was in the library when I had my vision. Fine threads of light reached out from where I stood, spreading out to every part of the building, picking out pages from books and journals; each thread highlighting a specific piece of text.

About three months earlier I had started research towards a PhD and this, I thought, this is my thesis – a quote here, a piece of information there, someone’s idea at the end of this thread and a counter-argument at the end of that one. Somewhere in this library is my thesis, each piece waiting to be picked out and compiled.

Of course, I would need to go to other libraries to find all the material but the principle behind the vision would be the same – bigger library or longer threads.

The vision lasted only for a brief moment but the thoughts it triggered stayed with me for days. They always started with a question: why don’t we give a PhD to the library?

The initial response might seem easy: the library, it knows nothing.

The problem with this response is that it opens a whole can of philosophical worms about what does it mean to know. Clearly it contains lots of information but would we say that it “knows” any of it? Yet we do talk about other inanimate objects this way. My alarm clock “knows” when to wake me up. My SatNav “knows” where I am and “knows” which road to take.

The idea that “knowing” means “contains information” also helps to make Aristotelian physics seem a lot less nonsensical. A rock falls to the ground because it “knows” its proper place in the universe. Haha, how funny. But if we say that a rock falls to the ground because it contains the information to do that, then this may not seem so far removed from current physics which looks at the information contained within particular systems.

Still, rather than keep chasing down that epistemological rabbit-hole there was an issue that related more directly to doing my research: “knowing” needs a “knower”. My thesis might be spread thinly throughout the library but it was still going to be my thesis. I was going to be the missing ingredient that made the difference.

Now the original problem takes on a fresh form. Just as knowing needs a knower so History needs a historian (or science needs a scientist)

I must have been a pain in the arse to my fellow post-grads over this one. Playing devil’s advocate, for example, I would argue the case for an old telephone directory being “History”. It’s old, got lots of people in it and it’s not just random information. It has been selected and organised. What more do you want?

Like me with my thesis so it is the historian that is the missing ingredient. Organised, old information is not enough; the historian is needed to make sense of it. It is the historian that turns the information into history (and, of course, decides what counts as “information” in the first place). And, of course, the same is true for science.

You need a historian to write history. You need a scientist to do the science.

In Borges’s Library of Babel the sense is in the reader not the books.

Eventually I was awarded my PhD and my thesis is now in the library, bound in red with gold lettering down the spine, but the library still knows nothing.


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