Do we need libraries?

I was giving a workshop a couple of weeks ago, a part of of which addressed the notion of ‘students as content creators’ and I was trying to do some research to find an interesting angle to approach the topic. I came across an article written by David Gauntlett, reflecting on Sir Tim Berners Lee’s book ‘Weaving the Web’. In it he spoke of Lee’s vision of the internet not as one where everybody can have access to information, but rather, one where everyone can create information. He explained that he wanted people to use browsers to access and edit any webpage they can get their hands on. An idea, of course that incepted the world of wikipedia and web 2.0 tools.

While I have a true appreciation of such technologies as enablers for our species, I embrace the work done to place ‘creating’ at the top of the updated Bloom’s taxonomy and do genuinely believe that my students learn better when they create things; I can’t help but also get skeptical whenever I have a quick flick through the news, or have a look at the ‘real world’ around me today.

When the prime news now flags the majority of people cannot distinguish between fake and real news, when presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors and journalists fail to make that distinction; then is the world ready for anyone to add to the already incomprehensible amount of information being produced, at an exponential rate? One cannot help but ask that question, and yes, I understand this can be perceived as a touch arrogant - here I am writing a public blog about my opinion, but hey ho, everyone is doing it – see what i did there? Joking aside, I do feel that blogging, amongst many other methods that have now become accessible to us, because of technology, is empowering. However, the lack of critical thinking demonstrated by a large segment of the world today, also makes it worrying.

Does the need arise for certainty for ‘factual’ knowledge to be preserved? When I asked myself that question, I slightly started to panic, but then my immediate thought was: Libraries will save the day. I can’t deny that I still prefer an actual physical book to read than a digital one (I think typing an ‘actual’ book is an indication of that in itself). So I admit, I maybe a little biased on the matter. But, that got me thinking again, if I am worried now that the wrong person may type something that will negatively influence many others – how do I know that hasn’t happened with books? Of course it happens with books, I immediately remembered reading science textbooks in school and regularly being told “forget everything you read in that book, it was rubbish, now we will learn about …” or reading a history book in Arabic and then in English and reading very different accounts of the same incident.

I quickly came to the realisation that there are many skeptics out there and they are now far more empowered to speak out and share their opinions. Scientists found a way to refute theories from across the globe before the age of the internet, someone somewhere will see it and likely correct it or offer a different perspective on it. I remembered a story today which I shared with a colleague of mine (it may have been what actually inspired this post) of a time when my dad bought us our first computer with a CD-ROM drive. It came with an encyclopedia which I was fascinated by and quickly started to see what I can learn, and to fact check some of the things I knew. The encyclopedia said that Israel had won the 1973 war against Egypt, that was directly opposing to what I had learnt in school, growing up in Egypt. I was baffled, and asked my parents and my teacher. My teacher encouraged the class to write to the encyclopedia what we had learnt in school and ask them to correct it. The following year, we were massively excited to see that ‘fact’ had been changed. Of course now I understand that there are politics in play, and alternate versions for the Middle East, Europe and America, each given the version of the truth that is culturally acceptable. I have witnessed this first hand with the recent Arab spring, with textbooks rewritten year on year to reflect recent history from the eyes of the dominant regime at the time.

The information, history and knowledge that defines us as who we are today as a species maybe slightly exaggerated or modified to benefit one party over another, and may well be very different again in a few hundred years. But it has also allowed us to advance, progress, globalise, influence, empathise and evolve. Like libraries today, holding books from Ancient times, that maybe outdated, updated, modified or plain wrong, there will be servers tomorrow doing the same and it is up to us to exercise our critical faculties to distinguish right from wrong.


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