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Luddism

February 22, 2002

You’ve probably wondered: What does the “American Historical Association’s Guide to Historical Literature” have to do with Luddites? I’ve asked myself this question, too.

“Luddite” is one of my favorite words. The sound of it evokes what Luddites are supposed to be — backward machine-haters opposed to progress.

However, Luddites — early 19th century English workers who lost their jobs to industrial machines — did not hate machinery but rather those who used machinery to reduce wages and eliminate jobs, thus hurting workers.

In our time, there is also a kind of aesthetic attached to Luddism. We might think of Shaker furniture, small farms, hand-woven textiles, passive solar homes, and library card catalogs.

Theodore Roszak’s book “The cult of information” is subtitled “a neo-Luddite treatise on high-tech, artificial intelligence, and the true art of thinking.”

One of Roszak’s complaints about the information-age paradigm is the decontextualization of knowledge. Concerning computers in schools, he observed that most educational programs “run the risk of overloading and further fragmenting the attention span (already so badly battered) that is basic to intelligence.” Hallelujah! I cried.

I’m not against technology, just inappropriate technology. Writing is best learned with a pencil. And cheaply. One can learn word processing later. It’s easy.

His indictments against the unexamined high-tech culture are strong, but he points out early on that he is decidedly not against the technology. After all, he writes with a word processor and uses online databases. He simply regrets that we accept its “wonders” without question. He warns that there are long-lasting and serious liabilities attached to any new technology.

Roszak continued preaching to my choir of one by inventing a word to describe an insidious effect of computers on the way we work. He called them “antiserendipitous.”

I think that even our small library is more usefully serendipitous than the “world” of the Internet. We pack a lot into our small space, but I believe we have made a rich collection in the last six years since substantially increasing our book budget. We shall continue.

We want to reward browsers. Access to a library collection is had (i) through the catalog and (ii) through shelf order. With the catalog, you can find books by searching in various ways, such as by subject. But another way is to place yourself before a shelf full of related books and look through them. Our nonfiction books are related by Dewey Decimal numbers, assigned by topic.

A well-organized library of books also provides a kind of provenance of knowledge. Time, effort, and expense go into the production of a books by authors, editors, publishers, and then into their use by librarians and readers, and this established process works as a kind of filter for knowledge. It may not be flawless, but it gives society time to think about an enduring version of knowledge and decide where to go from there.

Information is not knowledge. Knowledge results from a mind thinking about information. Consider this point made by Fritz Machlup: “New knowledge can be acquired without new information being received.” Remarkable, but true.

Libraries try to guide readers to knowledge as well as information. Consider a work such as the “AHA’s Guide to Historical Literature,” available in our reference room. In this you can find authoritative reading lists, assembled by experts in their fields.

If you’re reading in history, a collection like this will point you toward excellence that would take you many years to discover on your own. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Check with us first.

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