The Old Canvas is Almost Gone

A state university (attended by my niece and nephew) has just announced its decision to convert its library holdings from books to digital files and databases. This has brought home to me the current future of education, the creation of knowledge, and its preservation. Librarians are raising their cool-factor, even appearing at the ultracool SXSW, the South by Southwest culture and computer festival in Austin, Texas. (But I wonder  how public librarians afford the $825 entry pass for SXSW Interactive). Their slogan is “not the same old shhh.” Clever, no? From storytellers and instant reference on the streets to the now fashionable maker-spaces, librarians in the twenty-first century are actively embracing electronic multimedia as well as the old-fashioned personal interactions at information desks.

In 1890 William John Gordon wrote that “Now all the old canvas has gone, with its snowy wings from the watersails to the moonrakers” (Foundry, Forge, and Factory, p. 37). The Industrial Revolution and the progress of material technology used steam, then oil, and now atoms as fuel. Wind and horsepower were left to historical fiction, ecological dreamers, and the poetry of the past. Walter de la Mare might need to “go down to the sea again,” but finding a “tall ship” is increasingly difficult. Writers from Nicholson Baker to Neil Gaiman to myself are lamenting the passing of the book in its paper form, as the codex of recorded knowledge is being replaced by glowing electronic screens of hypermedia. Yet it’s too early for an obituary for print. Some educators are warning the enthusiastic early-adopters about their effects on learning. And the dire state of education in the United States is well-publicized.

So. I don’t know, but we live in interesting times. I’ve been on a wooden ship, even hauled on a sheet. Now I’m dusting my bookshelves again and reorganizing the proud paper books, just as though they were a library.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

–from Edna  St. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music.” Collected Poems (HarperCollins, 1958), via


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