On the Origins and Future of Writing and of “Library,” Briefly

I recently started reading Paper Talk: A History of Libraries, Print Culture, and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, by Brendan Frederick R. Edwards (2005).

A couple of things stood out right away:

The Aboriginal peoples of Canada have employed, both prior to and after contact, a number of sign-oriented levels of discourse in the material of wampum belts, pictographs and petroglyphs, birch bark scrolls, hieroglyphics, and winter counts.

And a quote from Armando Petrucci, as he defines the history of writing:

[A history of written or print cultures] must take into account every type of testimony produced in its period, from books to documents, from inscriptions to coins, from seals to graffiti, of writings in mosaic and carvings in ivory … of writers and of users, of the processes by which writing is produced, and of those by which it is learned and archived.

The text continues with a discussion of the meaning of literacy (problematic and debated and inconsistent) and a discussion of what is a library? This last question got me thinking about the notion in the advocacy of libraries that libraries do not equal “books,” which is a very widely held misconception as demonstrated in recent studies.

I love looking up the etymology of words, so I looked up “library,” wondering if the ancient definition of the word may be having an impact on how people today view libraries.

From The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966):

A place to contain books accessible for reading (Ch.); collection of books. XIV. – (O)F. librairie (now only “bookseller’s shop” = It., Sp. libreria, Pg. livraria – CRom. *libraria alteration of L. libraria bookseller’s shop, sb. use (sc. taberna shop) of librarius pert. to books, f. libr-, liber book; see -ARY, -y^3. So librarIAN (obsolete)scribe XVII; keeper of a library XVIII. f L. librarius + -AN.

– Ch. = Chaucer

– (O)F. = Old and modern French

– Pg. = Portuguese

– CRom = Common Romanic

– f. = formed on

From etymonline.com:

A place for books, late 14c., from Anglo-Fr. librarie, O.Fr. librairie “collection of books” (14c.), noun use of adj. librarius “concerning books,” from L. librarium “chest for books,” from liber (gen. libri) “book, paper, parchment,” originally “the inner bark of trees,” probably a derivative of PIE root *leub(h)- “to strip, to peel” (see leaf). The equivalent word in most Romance languages now means “bookseller’s shop.” O.E. had bochord, lit. “book hord.”

In these two etymological definitions, the word “book” appears 12 times. More than that, however, is the fact that there are no more recent variations in the etymology, that allow for different, more comprehensive meanings that would encompass the functions, programming, assistance, and services provided by modern libraries.

Even in the modern definitions provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, only one definition focuses on collected materials other than books, and that one is a definition given to the collection of films, gramophone records, music, etc. that has been recorded between the 1920s and the 1970s.

I wonder how long it will take for the definition of libraries to evolve into one that represents all the various functions, services, etc. provided by modern libraries?

Will “library” then revert from its recent “dirty word” status in some circles? (Many places are moving away from using the term “library” to describe their information centers, because it gives visitors and the general public an incomplete understanding of what the centers hold and provide).

When will the definitions of “library” and “literacy” broaden to include all the various types of writing and information formats that have been and are currently available?

Lastly, it is clear that the ancient definition of a library does not even take into account other ancient forms of writing and of literacy.

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