The Medieval Future of Intellectual Culture:
Scholars and Librarians in the Age of the Electron

An address to the American Research Libraries annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 1996 by Stanley Chodorow, Provost

The electronic revolution is taking us back to the middle ages. As librarians and as scholars, we are on a tape running fast-forward to the past. When the tape reaches its end, our professional lives will be changed. You will be the managers of an information environment very different from the one you deal with now. As a teacher and scholar, my relationship with students, colleagues, and information will have been transformed.

The changes I am talking about are not the obvious ones we can all see clearly today. Right now, at the beginning of the electronic revolution, we are preoccupied with the exponential growth of information resources on the World Wide Web. Scholars and information purveyors are producing this growth. Scholars, students, and librarians are trying to cope with it. In case you librarians have not yet noticed, let me say that the scholars and students are depending on you to figure out how to catalog and organize all that information out there on the Internet. We are counting on you to produce a new Melvil Dewey.

Hard as that task will be, it will not be the hardest problem that the revolution will create for us. The real problems of the new medium for research and publication will arise from the way it will change scholarly discourse, and it is in that change that we will retrace our steps to the intellectual culture of the middle ages. Today, I want to focus on that change and its effects. (1)

In medieval intellectual culture, works of literature--history, theology, law, medicine, and literature in the strict sense--flowed from author to author, across generations, growing and changing as individual contributors worked on them.

Medieval chroniclers used the work of their predecessors, adding and filling in material to make the work their own. In the modern editions of these works, scholars have marked the layers of the text by printing them in different sizes; the critical editions of works that grew over many generations-- such as some of the monastic chronicles of the Alsace-Lorraine--are the mothers of all eye charts.

The standard--or, as they are called, vulgate--glosses on the Bible and on the foundational texts of law, medicine, theology, and philosophy were also composite works, the melding of the works of several generations of teachers and scholars.

Papal and imperial privileges were reissued with each new reign, growing or changing in response to contemporary political interests while preserving the essence of the original privilege.

All of these kinds of medieval works and documents grew organically from generation to generation. What was significant about them was not who wrote them but what they contained.

In the not-so-distant future, our own intellectual culture will begin to look something like the medieval one. Our scholarly and information environment will have territories dominated by content, rather than by distinct individual contributions. The current geography of information was the product of the seventeenth-century doctrine of copyright. We are all worrying about how the electronic medium is undermining that doctrine. In the long run, the problem of authorship in the new medium will be at least as important as the problem of ownership of information.

Works of scholarship produced in and through the electronic medium will have the same fluidity--the same seamless growth and alteration and the same de-emphasis of authorship--as medieval works had. The harbingers of this form of scholarship are the listservs and bulletin boards of the current electronic environment. In these forums, scholarly exchange is becoming instantaneous and acquiring a vigor that even the great scholarly battlers of oldthe legendary footnote fulminators--would admire. Scholars don't just work side by side in the vineyard; they work together on common projects.

These harbingers reveal the first effects of a fundamental change in the means of communication. The modern forms of scholarship--the works we have been collecting, cataloging, and organizing for several centuries--are products of a particular means of communication. The codex dates from late antiquity. It was a technological advance on the scroll and the highest development of the possibilities of manuscription. The scientific article and the journal in which it appeared was invented in the seventeenth century. This form of publication realized the possibilities of the printing press. (The article as a mode of scientific communication was the invention of Edmund Halley, the astronomer who financed the publication of Newton's Principia and who used Newton's theory to predict the return of a comet that now bears his name.) We have not yet developed the best form for work published on the Internet, but we--and especially you, the librarians--need to begin to speculate about its characteristics in order to cope with its arrival on the scene and with the stages of its evolution.

A work of scholarship mounted on the Internet will belong to the field it serves and will be improved by many of its users. Scholar-users will add to the work, annotate it, and correct it, and share it with those with whom they are working. All the really important works of scholarship, the works we commonly call research tools, will quickly evolve into several subspecies in the hands of scholars.

We historians of medieval canon law distinguish between the French and Bolognese versions of the Breviarium of Bernard of Pavia, which evolved from the textbook of papal judicial opinions that Bernard produced about 1191-92. Will we soon be able to speak of the French, German, and American versions of an electronically transmitted calendar of papal letters? Or will the versions emerge within international circles representing different kinds of users of the letters--the political historians, social historians, and legal historians? The only certainty is that such works will evolve continuously once we begin to take advantage of our new medium for information.

I have intentionally been talking of the flow of information and the fluidity of works of scholarship. The future world of scholarship I am envisioning is one in which the information used by teams of scholars will be in liquid form. The electronic format encourages constant change--addition, subtraction, alteration--and its organization is fundamentally different from the one used in printed materials.

Right now, much of the material on the Internet is made up of digitized pictures of printed works, which can be cited by chapter, page, and paragraph. When scholars create information resources directly on the Internet, they use a variety of new organizational methods and expect the materials to grow and change constantly, perhaps even to be given a completely new organizational form in mid-stream, if someone develops a better way to present the data. We can expect many scholars to resist such fluidity in their information resources, because it will relegate the traditional footnote--to which some of us are inordinately attached--to the dustbin. Some future edition of the Chicago Manual of Style will provide models of citation to suit the new medium.

This imagined world is one in which the electronic medium has radically changed the nature of "publication." In the fluid world of the electron, the body of scholarship in a field may become a continuous stream, the later work modifying the older and all of it available to the reader in a single database or a series of linked databases. The prospect is exciting, but it contains some scary features.

One of these features is that a truly collaborative work, particularly a work in progress, blurs the concept of authorship and makes it difficult to judge the significance of individual contributions. Now, we manage information mostly by author. We will have to find another way.

Another disquieting feature of the new environment is that the electronic medium is evolving as fast as the scholarly discourse being carried out in it. What happens, then, when the discourse takes a break? All fields go through periods of stagnation. If the medium of scholarship continues to change, then the preservation of electronic resources must involve migration from one "platform" to another. So long as the discourse is lively, or at least animate, scholars and librarians who serve them will port it from system to system. Who will use up space and effort keeping a database alive during periods of intellectual downtime?

For a long time now, librarians have been moving cautiously towards greater and greater cooperation. The progress has been slow, because the large institutional investments in libraries have made us proprietary. The electronic medium requires that we speed up the move towards collaborative action. Now, we need to decide how we will preserve electronic information resources. Every month, great resources are being lost in the trash heap of old technology.

The recent progress of collaboration among libraries, such as it is, rests on the stability of the print medium. Whichever institution buys, catalogs, and shelves printed material, all other institutions in the collaborative loop will be able to use that material. But the electronic medium is unstable. Our institutions are leapfrogging one another as they upgrade their systems in response to the needs of their patrons and to the possibilities of the ever-developing technology. Until and unless our technology marches together in rank and file, the assumptions that have worked well during the age of print will fail us. The electronic revolution destroys the illusion that independent collection development and management can produce adequate information resources for the scholarly community, indeed for the community at large.

I am confident that as scholars we will work out a way to mark our contributions to the collaborative scholarly effort that we create in the electronic medium, so that librarians will be able to give us the credit we deserve!

The challenge before you today is to create a map--a catalog--of the electronic medium of information. Together, you must develop new organizational principles and techniques that work in this medium--that guide us to the precise source of information, identify the author of the information, and place the information in a chronological order. This is the information about information that scholarship requires.

In creating this new organization of knowledge, you will also have to design a new model of the information specialist. So long as there are printed resources--which will continue to pour out of presses--the skills and knowledge you have accumulated and passed on in your profession will have high value. But the growing importance of information resources in electronic form will certainly change the skills and knowledge needed by librarians. Ultimately, the librarians who will help us deal with the electronic medium will have to be members of the disciplines they serve.

In his novel The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco imagined the ideal of the medieval librarian--the information scholar who held the key to knowing. The librarian of the electronic age, like the librarian of the ancient and medieval worlds, will have to be a scholar among scholars. He or she will be the information specialist in every research group, the person who helps the group keep up with and understand the state of knowledge and its history.

This role will require training in a discipline as well as in information science, and it will make the role of librarians international. Today, a librarian is asked to serve the needs of a particular library and the community of scholars dependent on it. Even today, however, a librarian may serve as a resource for scholars far and wide who send queries by email. When the electronic age matures, the librarian will serve an international community of scholars in his or her field. The locations of librarian and colleagues, formerly called patrons or clients, will be designated by electronic addresses, not mail codes.

So, how will we, the people responsible for managing local resources and local institutions, decide whom to hire? We might decide that all librarians have to be able to do local tasks as well as international, scholarly ones. Then, we will hire the complement of people we need to run our libraries and assume that the special disciplinary interests of our librarians will take care of themselves. But scholars will not be content with the accidental nature and impermanence of that arrangement. They will not care where their librarian lives and works, but they will want to know that they can count on him or her.

Now is the time for the library community, which for decades has hovered between isolationism and international cooperation, to make a decisive commitment to cooperation. There is a great deal to be done if the return of the medieval intellectual culture, with its fluid and international character, is to be as productive and important for human civilization as it was the first time it came around.


(1) Provost Chodorow has written elsewhere about the effects of the electronic revolution on teaching and learning. In sum, he asserts it will reorder the curriculum and the work done with students in and out of class by changing the means of communication and by giving students new methods and opportunities to learn. See S. Chodorow, "Educators Must Take the Electronic Revolution Seriously," Academic Medicine 71 (1996) 221-26.


Volume 43 Number 10
October 29, 1996

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