Presiding over 'memory of mankind': tough role in information age

My father, a biochemist, grew up in the days when laboratories contained a few flasks, some petri dishes, and an alcohol lamp. Surrounded now by high-technology instruments, he still retains a feel for the various microorganisms upon which he works - the quirks of their development, their place in the life cycle.

So it is with some sadness that he recalls talking to a young graduate student recently about a particular bacterium whose chemistry the student was studying. Did he know, my father asked, how this fascinating bug lived and grew? ''Goodness, no!'' replied the student. ''I buy it by the brick.''

It is no longer news, of course, that the age of specialization is upon us - and that students of the ''life sciences,'' forced to comprehend vast bodies of prior research before beginning their own, narrow their fields of study so far that they forget about ''life.'' They're not alone in facing the bulge of knowledge. Some years ago, Shakespeare scholars found that the number of books and articles about the Bard had grown so large that no one could read them all in a lifetime. Librarians have found that in the field of chemistry alone some 900,000 abstracts are being published annually. Estimates now are that the amount of measurable information available to mankind doubles every five years. Specialization, it would seem, has become necessary for intellectual survival.

That has not always been the case. When Francis Bacon (sometimes described as the last man to know everything) published his ''Novum Organum'' in 1621, his task was less to define specialties than to sift out the few accurate facts from the sea of superstition, misinformation, and delusion that passed in his day for truth. While some of that sea is still around us, scholars today face an essentially different problem - one that humanity has never really faced before. We are deluged with ''facts,'' many of them highly accurate. The problem is what to do with them.

From his perspective as head of the New York Public Library, Vartan Gregorian muses upon such things. Over lunch with Monitor writers and editors recently, the Iranian-born historian and former provost of the University of Pennsylvania put the issue succinctly. He said the challenge to scholarship and to the libraries that support it is ''to transform this information into structured knowledge.''

In an age of data bases and computer-generated research, that's a tall order. The so-called information explosion (which Dr. Gregorian prefers to call an ''information inflation'') has come upon librarians rather quickly over the last several decades, presenting tough questions in three areas:

* Acquisition. Of the 55,000 books and 12,000 journals likely to be published this year in the United States alone, which ones should be purchased? Circulating libraries obviously collect the books their readers want to check out. University libraries buy books related to their curricula or to the research interests of the faculty. But what about major research libraries, like the 26 million-item New York Public Library? In what Dr. Gregorian describes as the libraries' role of ''presiding over the memory of mankind,'' one thing is clear: It cannot buy everything, especially when ''everything'' includes information stored electronically. So who is to determine what constitutes mankind's memory?

* Access. The concept of the free public library, inaugurated in Boston in 1854, has been crucial to the education and upward mobility of millions of Americans - and to the acculturation of generations of immigrants. But as libraries recast their roles to include electronic information-retrieval systems , the word ''free'' increasingly comes under attack. Who pays for expensive computer time? Public funds are already stretched thin. In the future, will knowledge be available only to those who can afford it?

* Preservation. Some of humanity's most interesting documents, printed on some of the cheapest and most highly acidic paper, are rapidly decaying. Entire eras are threatened: Almost 70 percent of the publications printed in the World War I period are already disintegrating, Dr. Gregorian says. In an age when it costs $400 to preserve a valuable book using traditional methods, his system's $ 1.5 million in operating funds for conservation is hardly adequate. So what gets preserved - and who decides the priorities?

These are urgent questions. Books not bought now may never be acquired. A generation of untrained minds cannot be replaced. Documents not preserved this year may crumble away next year.

But as yet, the nation has no broad and comprehensive policy on libraries. Such a policy would help. More than that, however, the nation needs broad and comprehensive librarians. It needs individuals who, transcending narrow specialties, embrace the history of ideas sufficiently to act as curators for humanity's intellectual heritage. Without them, public policy will not easily be shaped. Without them, information will increasingly lie about in pieces, unassembled into ''structured knowledge.''

Without them, to be sure, we'll still have plenty of facts. But will we understand their interrelations? Goodness, no: We'll just buy them by the brick.

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