The Church of Latter Day Scholars

Michael Godwin, General Counsel, Wikipedia Foundation, is on campus today visiting with various digital humanities groups and giving a talk titled, “After the Revolution.” I’ve been thinking about the role of libraries and the Internet and academic responses to Wikipedia.

In an interview, Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, says: “Before The Gutenberg Press the average person could own zero books. Before Project Gutenberg the average person could own zero libraries, speaking only of the words, of course, not the physical entity or the library staff, etc.” Academics seem to have an allergic reaction to projects like Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg, but they are missing the point of these projects and an opportunity as educators.

Before the Gutenberg Press, knowledge of the Bible was mediated by the Church. Your understanding of what God wanted was based on your faith in the Church and its priests. No one could afford to own their own illuminated edition of the Bible, much less have a need to read. After the Press, the Bible was affordable for a lot of people. The Press lead to the Reformation because people could trust their own reading instead of having to put their faith in the Church. Printed books weren’t as beautiful as the earlier illuminated editions on parchment, but the information content was the same and costs much less. Printing didn’t preserve the form of the earlier work, but transformed it in a way that lead to wider and more flexible use. Today, books can be carried in a back pocket and read anywhere.

Electronic books are going to have the same impact once they figure out how they should work. The various gadgets like Amazon’s Kindle will eventually go away. None of the current snake oil does for printed books what printed books did for hand copied editions. The places you can use an e-book are fewer than those in which you can use a printed book. Current electronic devices represent regression in reading. However, electronic books do what print books can’t do: they let you own a library at an affordable price. But electronic books aren’t yet a revolution. They just put in electronic form what is in print.

The Press also opened up another realm to people with fewer means: authorship. By making books cheaper to print, new books could be printed with less initial investment. The Press lead to an explosion in writing.The Internet has produced a similar explosion through blogs and websites. The barrier to entry today is the lowest it has ever been, regardless of the audience size. Anyone can be an author, and anything published can be read.The Internet is today’s library, and devices like the iPhone are the means of accessing that library.

The Internet also represents the Press to todays Church of scholarship. No longer does information require faith in the mediation of scholars. We can write and read our own encyclopedia directly. Instead of fighting this revolution, scholars should be teaching critical thinking skills that let us sort through the information we find and decide for ourselves what is good and consistent with everything else we’ve seen and learned.

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James is a software developer and self-published author. He received his B.S. in Math and Physics and his M.A. in English from Texas A&M University. After spending almost two decades in academia, he now works in the Washington, DC, start up world.