Sunday, 16 December 2007

What Price Knowledge?

As I relaxed in the library of the Diogenes club, warming myself in front of the fire and enjoying some of their excellent brandy, I felt myself overtaken with a feeling of Christmas cheer. The room had recently been refurbished and more shelves had been put up to house the latest additions to our collection of learned volumes.

My good mood was probably due to the fact that I was full of good food and drink. Along with my companions, I had just partaken of the Club's legendary Christmas Dinner, a feast so decadent that I felt sure that I would not need to eat again for at least a week.

I found myself enjoying the momentary - and uncharacteristic - pause in the conversation, taking the opportunity to draw on my cigar and lose myself in the flames of the fire. The crackling sounds made by the logs were almost as hypnotic and no one seemed to want to break the spell.

"Of course, you know that all this stuff about peace and goodwill to all men is complete balderdash, don't you." said Manton, rousing everyone from their digestive reverie.

"For goodness sake, Manton, you may be the most cynical of us all, but that is a somewhat sweeping statement." said Treworthy. "Do you really expect us to believe that you are unmoved by the air of festivity and immune to the expressions of delight on the faces of the youngsters."

"They are all spoilt brats, heading for a life of heart attack-inducing obesity and planet-destroying consumerism, distinguished only by the fact that they are the first generation since the Second World War to be less literate and less intelligent than their moronic parents."

"I think you are mellowing as you approach your dotage, old boy." observed Travis, as he took another sip of brandy. "That's quite a restrained comment for you. One might even say laid-back. Either that or St Nicholas really has got you by the throat."

"The only person who has got me by the throat is my venomous ex-wife and her disgusting brood of relatives. Her incessant demands for maintenance have reached megalomanic proportions, even for her."

His ruddy face turned even redder, and he finished off his brandy with a huge mouthful, inducing a fit of coughing. Henry was at his elbow as if by magic, refilling his glass as he struggled for breath. After the lack of oxygen had calmed him down, he waited until Henry had relit his cigar.

"Every day I sink to my knees and give thanks to each of the major deities that I came to my senses before she was able to conceive."

Ever the scientist, it was Abrahams who spoke next: "Evidence, Manton, evidence. You know the club rules. You have to back up generalisations with documentary evidence."

"He means the bit about it all being balderdash. We'll take your own lack of festive cheer as read." added Travis, helpfully.

"Very well. I do happen to have a little tale here told to me by one of my librarian colleagues, that may serve to illustrate my point, especially as it happened during the festive season last year."

I had never been too sure exactly what Manton's occupation was, but whatever it was that he did, he did it in the British Library.

"Now, you may think that the job of a librarian is somewhat boring..."

There was a flurry of mutterings from the rest of us along the lines of "Not at all" and "Wouldn't dream of it..." but Manton pushed on regardless.

"...but my tale concerns the head librarian at one the major Universities, name of Tremayne. He was highly respected, national reputation and all that. But over the course of a couple of months, things had started to go wrong at work."

"Don't tell me – he lost his date stamp" interjected Travis.

"Shut up Travis" said Treworthy, and then to Manton "What d'you mean?"

"Well, he arrived one day to find that his parking space had been allocated to someone else, and when he went to complain, no one seemed to know who had given the order. Then sometime later, he discovered that the phone had been removed from his office. The final straw was when he learned through a third party that the library building was going to be restructured , and a quarter of it's book stock sold off."

"Well, didn't he go and complain?"

"Of course he did. Made an appointment to see to see the Head of Academic Services. But he was told that the fellow was too busy to see him. Then, later that same afternoon, there was a knock on the door of his office, and in walked a chap in his twenties, about half the Tremayne's age. It turned out that he was the "Learning Resource Co-ordination Facilitator....."


"Ah, another one of these non-jobs that our new Vice-Chancellor has created." said Tremayne.

"Oh, I wouldn't call it a non-job, Mr Tremayne. Not when I'm paid sixty-five 65K a year."

"Sixty-five....... That's more than I get." Tremayne noticed how new – and expensive – the young man's suit was.

"Quite. So let's get down to business. I hear that you are unhappy about our new plans for the learning resource centre."

"If you mean the library, then yes. Why wasn't I informed of this through proper channels?"

"I'm sure you would have been, Mr Tremayne, in the fullness of time."

"In the fullness of time being after all the decisions are made, I take it?"


"This idea of getting rid of a quarter of the book stock. It's monstrous."

"Simple economics. We need more space."

"More space? Well of course we do. This is a library. We always need more space."

"Yes, but not for books."

"What on earth do you mean?"

"Mr Tremayne, according to your own records, a fifth of the bookstock in this library have never been taken out more than once, and a substantial proportion of those have never been taken out at all. There is no economic case for keeping those books."

"I don't deny the need for some ...."

"In fact, there are some voices, some very influential voices, who are openly talking of getting rid of books altogether."

"What?" Tremayne slumped down in his chair.

"Well, what is the point in keeping them? What use are they? We are living in the digital age now, Mr Tremayne."

"But you can't have library without books...."

"Which is why it is not called a library anymore. As I have already told you, it is a Learning Resource Centre. And...". He looked around at the clutter, the shelves of books and magazines and journals that were clearly awaiting sorting and cataloguing, "I think I should tell you that this is not the sort of image that we are trying to promote. Look around you. You are sitting in a room surrounded by dead information."

"What do you mean dead. It's kept safe, preserved for future generations. Without these books, we would have no information."

"Yes, but you can't do anything with it. You can't search it, you can't copy it, you can't transmit it anywhere. Have you any idea how students regard books nowadays, Mr Tremayne? I have had degree students tell me that they just don't use the library at all. Have you never wondered why you see so few of them up here now? In their eyes, the information isn't usable. You can't find anything, or if you can, you can't copy it."

"Yes you can – of course you can. That's my job. That's what I spend my life doing..."

"Exactly. I'm afraid you have become something of a bottleneck."

"A bottleneck....what do you mean?"

"Well, you see, the new vision that the university is trying to promote is that information should be free, it should flow like water. It's fluid, infinitely malleable. It doesn't belong to anyone. It shouldn't be stuck here, frozen into huge immovable slabs like the ones that you have surrounded yourself with."

"I am paid for my knowledge of these books. How to find information, classify it, copy it, select what is needed."

"People can make their own copies of things now, Mr Tremayne. They can find anything they want in the blink of an eye. People have huge amounts of information on their computers now."

"Just because you can make a copy of something doesn't mean that you understand it. Information is the relationship beween data and meaning. It has to be given context."

"Which can be done by the simple use of a search engine. Anyone can do it."

"Then why don't they? Look at the world around you – what have we achieved with all this free knowledge? When I was a young man, all we had were typewriters and sliderules. Searching through a filing cabinet could take the best part of a day. And yet we managed to land a man on the moon. What have we got now? Videogames and reality TV. And global warming. Hardly a giant leap for mankind, is it."

"Mr Tremayne, you seem determined to make this difficult...."

"Difficult? My god when the Head of Academic Services hears about this..."

"He won't, because the post no longer exists. Like yours.".

"I beg your pardon?"

"The Learning Resource Centre is going to be remodelled, the books are going to be sold off, and you will not have an office because your job will no longer exist."


"You don't fit in with the new vision."

"I shall talk to the Vice-Chancellor...."

"Well before you do, I think I should tell you that the visionary in question is the Vice-Chancellor. However, it is entirely up to you."


"And that was about it really. The young einsatzgruppen-exekutiv said all the usual rubbish about giving him an excellent reference and all that, but the poor old boy was a broken man. Never really recovered."

There was a pause while we contemplated the uncertainties of our existence. Treworthy broke the silence.

"Well, I feel sorry for him, poor devil, but I'm afraid I'm on the side of the University. You have to move with the times.... Is there any more brandy Henry?"

"I shall go and see sir."

"Yes, but they didn't have to be so brutal about it, did they. And breaking up the library's book collection like that just seems wrong to me. God knows what happened to them." I said. Manton's story had depressed me.

"It did seem a little harsh." said Travis, his usual wit having momentarily deserted him.

"Well, I wouldn't worry about it too much." said Manton. "If it is any consolation, the University got such a bad report from the inspectors the following year, that the Vice-Chancellor was forced to resign amidst rumours of financial irregularities and the whole lot was restructured again, which meant that they got rid of most of the people like the Learning Resource Facilitator."

"I bet they replaced them with an equally useless bunch though." said Travis.

"All the same, it would be nice to think that some good came out of the whole ghastly episode." said Treworthy, as the butler returned with a fresh supply of brandy, and recharged his glass. "What do you think Henry?"

"I feel sure that every cloud has a silver lining, Sir." said Henry, as he went back to dusting the latest additions to the club's collection of books.


Anonymous said...

From the WGGB newsletter [ ]
Thursday, December 20, 2007:

British Council to disband specialist departments

In The Daily Telegraph (;?xml=/arts/2007/12/19/bacouncil119.xml ) Richard Dorment laments the news that the British Council is set to close many of its specialist departments including those dealing with film, drama and literature.
Earlier this year the executive board abolished all the advisory panels - the writers, curators, museum directors and musicians who freely gave their professional advice and expertise to the council. Now the staff are being reorganised to focus on the following areas: "Progressive Facilitation", "Market Intelligence Network", "Knowledge Transfer Function" and "Modern Pioneer". If you have no idea what that gobbledygook management speak means, don't worry: neither does anyone else.....

Ro said...


Maybe ... but good cynicism always carries its own store of truth and I am so pleased to have come across your own unique brand of truth!

Keep up the good work!