Viewpoint: Ms Eloise ReQua and the communication of literature

I bought my first eBook in 1999. I had waited a long time for this, as in 1984 I had published a modest collection of essays entitled The book is dead! Long live the book! The manufacturer was Rocket eBooks. The slate felt good in my hand, had a back-lit screen, high readability and nice graphics. Regrettably, the manufacturer of Rocket eBook, Nuvomedia, was acquired by Gemstar eBook Group. But there is a successor, the REB. Of course, there are many alternative eBooks around. My first Rocket eBook had some interesting features – it allowed me to search through a book for the occurrence of any word, a simple form of text retrieval. It allowed me to look up any word in a dictionary, which is useful for a non-native English speaker struggling with the language. And it allowed you to write your own notes anywhere, using a virtual keyboard.

There are better reading tablets around now. Of course, the most popular is Amazon Book’s Kindle, which does not have to be connected to a computer for downloading books. But Kindle, like the Rocket eBook, has a proprietary format for the books. There are alternatives, like iRex, which has a highresolution screen, Linux operating system and accepts open formats (like .ftp), but not the popular Microsoftformats (like .doc or docx). My version does not permit searches, but does let me make free-hand notes directly in the text. This is great, for instance when reading a draft thesis which I need to comment. And using standard memory cards also makes the interoperability high. But your notes will not follow the file stored on the memory card to your computer. And it is only black-and-white; there is no colour, no animation.

Clearly we are still waiting for the breakthrough of reading tablets. Sony had announced a version of its welldesigned tablet for summer 2009. This was rumoured to support colour and also allow the reader to add notes. But due to the financial crises, it is said, the launch has been delayed. But while waiting, let me return to the Rocket eBook. Like many such reading tablets, it came pre-loaded with some teasers. One of them was Bulfinch’s Mythology. Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867), was a Boston banker who thought his fellow countrymen ought to have a better knowledge of the mythological foundation on which much of their culture was built. He wrote three books, The Age of Fable (1855) retelling the myths of Greek and Roman gods and heroes. The Age of Chivalry (1858) collects the Arthurian legends of England. And in Legends of Charlemagne (1863) one can read about Charlemagne and his knights, the Paladins. After his death these three books were combined and published as one volume, Bulfinch’s Mythology.

When first discovering this compilation within the Rocket eBook, I was struck by the contrast between the age of the stories and the age of the medium. I regretted that Bulfinch had not included the tale of Gilgamesh, the main character in the epic named after him, describing Gilgamesh as a superhuman who built a great city wall to defend his people from external threats. It is maintained that the epic of Gilgamesh is the first story we know that is presented as a story, as fiction – rather than as a story of mythical past or gods. The cuneiform clay tablets with the epic were unearthed in 1853 at Nineveh, as part of the library of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, 1200 BC.

So we return to libraries. And to their role in communicating literature to the readers. The library of Ashurbanipal survived for more than 3,000 years, and completed one of its purposes when the tale of Gilgamesh completed its journey over time, communicating the epic to readers of another age.We should appreciate the current conversion of the current library stocks to digital form as a major project in communicating literature to readers, opening collections for new readers.

One of my own recollections of the communication of non-fiction relates to the Library of International Relations at the Chicago-Kent Law School.

As I work within the field of computers and law, my interest was raised by the new faculty building of this law school at West Adams Street in Chicago. It was finished in early 1990, and was constructed around an information technology infrastructure. For instance, the auditoriums were wired allowing students to plug in to the local network of Chicago-Kent while attending a lecture, and study material, like case books of court decisions, being made available through the network only. One will appreciate how early this was with respect to the develop- ment of the Internet. I can still remember very clearly the first demonstration of the World Wide Web in 1993 (before the first search engine). Someone (for my benefit) clicked on a link to a US University, where references to Ibsen’s works were listed. Clicking on one of these links, suddenly the original text of A doll’s house was displayed – in Norwegian. I looked in amazement at how a US University made available a Norwegian text, until I saw the address line where the University of Bergen was indicated. It may be an indication of my amazement at new technology that I thought this to be a hoax.

The hoax has come to stay. And the Library of International Relations (LIR) at Chicago-Kent demonstrated the power to me. LIR was founded in 1932 by Eloise ReQua (1902-1989). Through her correspondence, Ms. ReQua was able to obtain materials which were not widely distributed, such as the collection of Russian tempura war posters and the press releases of the League of Nations, printed on self-destruction paper and thrown away as of little interest by all sensible librarians. But Ms ReQua preserved them, and after her death the Chicago- Kent school continued the preservation in a controlled climate within a vault of the library in the new building. The material was sufficiently rare and brittle only to be accessed on a written authorisation by the chief librarian. And as Chicago-Kent pioneered digital technology, the material of the LIR was converted to digital form and – suddenly – the closed vault of precious documents was available all over the world.

I admit the example is personal. But it demonstrates two aspects of the revolution in which we are taking part. First, material only available to the few, and at one place, becomes available to everybody. All around the world, universities, research institutions, and first grade pupils. Second, material of interest to only the few, to those taking a special interest, is made available. The few distributed around the globe are able to unite and share their interest in the specialised material, such as the documents of LIR.

It is the story of the library of Ashurbanipal repeated. The closed library communicated to the many. We are overjoyed by the result. But we may still consider the consequences for libraries and librarians as we know them.

Jon Bing
Professor dr juris
The Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law
(NRCCL) The Faculty of Law, University of Oslo AT

Professor dr juris The Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law (NRCCL) The Faculty of Law, University of Oslo