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THE FOCUS OF THIS ARTICLE IS PRIMARILY ON THE impact that the computer revolution has on college/university libraries, although many of the issues discussed here are relevant to other types of libraries as well. The university library in its present form is a product of the printing press revolution. In all likelihood, the computer revolution will have an even more profound impact on the library than did the printing press revolution.
"The library is, and always has been, the heart of a college," wrote Gertrude Himmelfarb (1999). The "always" here probably means "ever since the emergence of modern universities" rather than "always" in an absolute sense. Himmelfarb noticed that it was Gutenberg's invention of the printing press that allowed libraries to attain a prominent role in education, scholarship, and in public life in general. The libraries of medieval universities played a different role than college libraries in modern times. In the medieval university, study centered mainly on lectures and disputes and access to the library's manuscripts was rather difficult for students; professors too could not always freely use the library, especially at times of religious tensions when certain books were forbidden to readers who could not demonstrate religious and intellectual worthiness of being trusted with texts capable of poisoning the reader's mind with wrong ideas. This, together with the great material value of books (an illuminated manuscript could buy as much as a yoke of oxen and sometimes a whole farm) made a medieval library similar to a treasure house, and books similar to treasures--i.e., highly priced, rare, desired, and used only on special festive occasions. The libraries in medieval Europe belonged mostly to universities or cathedrals. They rarely contained more than 1,000 manuscripts. In contrast, some of the famous Arab libraries of this time had collections of tens of thousands of books or more. For example, the collection of books in the library of Cordoba grew to more than 400,000 titles during the reign of the Umayyad dynasty (it ruled Andalusia starting in 932). At that time, according to James Burke (1995), there were not that many books in the whole of France. As Himmelfarb (1999) points out, when the Vatican Library was established (quite late, in 1450), it had at that time only about 2,500 volumes.
As is well known, the invention of the printing press made the production of books much cheaper and easier, although as Robert Escarpit (1966) points out, the number of printing presses and the size of printings were restricted by guild ordinances (p. 21). Books became more available, and the literacy rate rose because the usefulness of the knowledge of reading and writing grew rapidly. The collections of books grew, too.
While the number of individuals who were able to read and write grew significantly during the centuries following the invention of the printing press, the time needed for the popularization of texts grew shorter. Dante's Divine Comedy needed 400 years to become known throughout Europe, Cervantes' Don Quixote needed twenty years for the same, and The Sorrows of Wertherby Goethe, a 1774 novel that became immensely popular all over Europe, needed only five years (see Escarpit, 1966, p. 22).
As the dissemination of texts greatly widened, the clergy's control over people's thoughts became more and more tenuous. The situation of an author changed too. His (or her) words reached a much wider audience than when he lectured or produced manuscripts. As Escarpit (1966) says, writing enabled the author to speak to posterity, "to conquer time," and books (especially printed books) made it possible to spread the written word throughout the world, thus enabling the author "to conquer space" (p. 18). However, the author of a printed text had no extratextual influence upon the reception of his work, unlike the teacher in the classroom with his greater interpretive control over his students' thought. This new situation required, among other things, a different approach to language. Two basic functions of language were especially important: it had to capture the reader's attention and make him/her interested in the text, but it also had to make the reader understand the author's thoughts in the way the author wanted them to be understood. This required the authors of scholarly texts to have special skills and intellectual discipline, and it required the authors of fiction to have richness of language and power of imagination. All this contributed to the development of national languages. Latin became more and more inadequate to express the new ideas and to describe the changing world for which the dead language did not have proper words. In addition, books containing practical knowledge, useful in everyday life, could not be read by people who did not spend years learning Latin first.
Since the author is usually absent during the reading of a text, the reader has to rely on his/her own mind alone. The reader cannot be completely certain if he/she understands the author correctly. This could be, and it often was, a source of frustration, but it trained the reader's mind, made the reader accustomed to independent thinking, and gave birth to many new ideas that would not have occurred if the reader's thoughts were controlled by the author of the original text. Of course, the invention of the printing press strengthened this trend significantly.
Printed texts also made it possible to acquire knowledge individually (i.e., not through oral public presentation) and freely (i.e., without control of either the individual tutor or the owner of the collection of manuscripts). One of the results of this situation was the loss of belief that knowledge means possession of a mystery, a secret wisdom, inaccessible to outsiders. Knowledge became an instrument which everyone could and should use. Faith in the power and in the universal character of the individual human mind was born and with it a new concept of the human being. The masses of believers who used to obey the possessors of knowledge discovered that they were rational individuals capable of making their own judgments and decisions. The number of possessors of knowledge greatly increased with the advent of printed texts. A new faith arose: the faith that each human being could possess knowledge and could do so by studying books and using his own reason.
All these new phenomena contributed to the decline of the university in its medieval form. The old universities did not offer what the public wanted anymore. Typically, universities did not want to or were unable to change, and they gradually became places of conservative views and second-rate scholars, whereas many of the great ideas of that epoch were produced either by private scholars or by court men in the service of royals and wealthy aristocrats.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in particular were the time of a battle between the old and the new at European universities. New colleges and
professorships were founded by members of royal and aristocratic families (several of these founders were women), notably at Oxford and Cambridge, and in places with strong Protestant movements. Their task was to support the scholarship that would promote ideas dear to the founders' hearts. These ideas too were often new, controversial, and untested. To pursue them required an open mind, courage, and a certain disrespect for tradition.