In Defense of the Memory Theater and Information Literacy

Since this does not fit into any of the lists where I participate, this is my first independent blog post.

I would like to bring to everyone’s attention an interesting essay: In Defense of the Memory Theater by Nathan Schneider at

In part of the essay, the author explains how much he loves books and describes his fears of going virtual, bringing up the burning of the library at Alexandria. But more interesting for me was when he mentioned how traumatic it was when he left school and he lost access to all of those wonderful resources:

“But eventually, inevitably, I moved on from the plenty of universities to a string of tiny New York apartments. My little library came with me. In the months that followed, after a countdown of email warnings, my off-campus access to the University of California’s online databases went dead. By then I had already learned that, as sprawling as the New York library systems were, they couldn’t satisfy me like the academic ones had before. Getting there took not just a stop on the way to class, but a subway ride and a trudge through the cold. Most of what I wanted, anyhow, was in the closed stacks at 42nd Street, and I couldn’t take anything there home with me past the watchful guard of the lions out front.

“It was, finally, just me and my bookshelf. At first it wasn’t even a shelf at all, but piles of books scattered around my room on the floor, as orderly as I could manage and as high as they’d get before tumbling….”

Later, he says:

“…for the several years since I lost my borrowing privileges from research libraries and have had to leave my source texts behind, I’ve come to rely on Google and Amazon searchable previews”

This is very similar to my own experience after I left the magnificent collection at Princeton. (I wrote about this in a previous post, now available on my blog at

Librarians don’t seem to want to talk much about this. In our information literacy classes, we tell people about all of these great databases they can access, all of the great books they can get to, and then in the catalog we concentrate on precisely those same materials, but later when those people leave, they don’t have access to these materials any longer. What are they supposed to do? Certainly, if they are aware of it, they may be able to get things through ILL, but while librarians consider ILL a success, I suspect most of our patrons view ILLs a bit differently: although the patrons may have a high satisfaction with the ILL service a library provides, how does this impact on how the patron thinks about the local collection? Do they believe that having to request something that is not available locally and wait for it to arrive evidence that *the local library* itself has failed? From a very quick view of blog posts, I think this may be true. In either case, no matter how well ILL is instituted, it is a pain, and becomes more of a pain especially as the age of “instant-gratification” becomes more and more instant.

So, we teach our patrons to use materials that will probably not be available to them when they leave and go out into the real world. They discover that they are practically helpless without access to JSTOR or Lexis-Nexis. Therefore, if they are not to simply go without, they must use what they find available to them, and while in a previous era, not that long ago, they may have found themselves leafing through 30 year old textbooks or outdated almanacs found on the library’s shelves, today they have the Internet and many of the free materials there. It is only natural that they will use and rely on them for their information needs because they won’t have anything else, even though they will remember how we told them not to believe what they see on the web. Nevertheless, they will have no choice except to do it, and the final result will probably be only an additional load of guilt added onto their backs.

So in many ways, I think our information literacy classes have results such as teaching a driving class which would train people only how to drive Ferraris or Lamborghinis. 99% of the students will never have access to those kinds of cars again once they leave the class.

Is there anything we can do?