American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 14

Scholars and Research Libraries
in the 21st Century

Billy E. Frye
D. Kaye Gapen
Patricia Battin
A. Richard Turner


Statement from the Research Library Committee

The Future of the Library: A View from the Provost’s Office
Billy E. Frye

The Needs of Scholars: Libraries in Transformation
D. Kaye Gapen

Access to Scholarly Materials
Patricia Battin

Lights Are On, Will Anybody Be Home?
A. Richard Turner

Richard A. Lanham

Electronic Texts and University Structures

Richard A. Lanham
University of California, Los Angeles

A couple of months ago I happened to hear the Chancellor of my university campus discuss the future of big institutions like UCLA. He was speaking to a small group of university presidents and provosts and library directors — I was invited through a fluke, as a one-time sacrificial humanist — and he spoke with candor. He said a number of surprising things about the financial and political realities of university life, but what piqued my curiosity the most was his insistence that the university should prepare its undergraduate students, seriously and directly, for the world they will really live in, and the lives they will in fact live out. I was struck not so much by the originality of this exhortation — although it was new coming from the Chancellor — as by the extraordinary changes which would be required if anyone took it to heart. There’s not much chance that anyone will, of course, but I couldn’t help asking myself what would happen in my neck of the woods — teaching in the arts and letters, and more especially in literature and composition — if someone did.

The students we teach are going to do most of their writing and much of their reading on an electronic screen. They are going to live — they live now — in a world of electronic text. The changes in this regard in the last 10 years have been altogether remarkable. The two predominant learned professions, medicine and law, depend now in fundamental ways on electronic databases.

Most of our students, though, will work not in law or medicine but in the world of business or, as it is out where I live, the business-government-military complex. If we look at the world of “training,” as applied education for business, government, and the military has come to be called — with typical humanistic invidiousness, “training” being inferior to the higher-toned “education” which humanists provide — the dominance of digitally displayed information is even stronger than in the learned professions. The military establishment — an enormous force in American education since the second World War, and one the university world has always ignored — has moved to interactive videodisk as its central technology. We may anticipate that they will follow the permutations of this technology into unforeseen ground, but wherever they go, it seems unlikely that they will return to pen and paper. The deep changes in the logos, in words as our central expressive medium, which I shall describe in a moment, and which have not yet fully reached the university world, are everyday reality there. The training world has much to teach us in the university, though we show no inclination to learn it. This world, we might reflect, is enormous — last year, more money was spent in it, and more students educated, than in all of American higher education put together. It constitutes, in fact, the university world’s long-delayed “Japan,” the main competitor which may finally force some changes in our own institutional practices. And it is a competitor which already has an over-50% market share.

If we glance from business toward the arts, we find an electronic revolution of at least equal magnitude occurring there. Over half of the music performed in the United States last year was digitally based. In the entertainment business where many UCLA students find their living, for example, the whole basis of music has been revolutionized. Musical instruments themselves have changed, the whole 19th-century Romantic orchestra collapsing into a generic electronic keyboard, horn, and drum pad. Musical notation, for so long the great bottleneck of musical production, has been taken out of the hands of individual engravers and put on an average electronic desktop. And both composers and performers have been given an enormous repertoire of recorded sounds to play with, reform, and collage, a vast library — usually built into, or bundled with, an electronic keyboard when you buy it — which reminds one of the topoi of ancient rhetoric, the stock of ready arguments a classical speaker would regroup into a newly tailored oration. These “samples,” as they are usually called, are “revised,” as we might say, visually, on an electronic screen as waveforms which can be manipulated by eye and hand before being returned to sound.

If you spend much time in this world, the world of rock music and video, you’ll find that those folks live in a genuinely different world from people of my generation, fond as we may be of all the arts. They think of sounds and shapes as interchangeable, and they assume as everyday fact an electronic smithy where all the signals of the sensorium can be refashioned at will. When I was growing up, the kid who used to take apart old radios was a very different type from the kid who took piano lessons from Miss Fidditch, and both were very different from the infuriating guy in the front row of geometry class — in my class his name was Bill Hoover — who invented proofs which weren’t even in the teacher’s book. Not any more. A new set of types is emerging which mixes the old categories of self — another rhetorical commonplace — very differently.

In the visual arts, to which one naturally segues from music in such a world, digitization has had the same enzymatic effect. Anyone thinking of earning a living as a graphic artist must contemplate doing so using an electronic screen. Everything from advertising to architectural drafting to cartography now possesses a radical electronic base. And yet in one campus of the University of California system where I work, when I recently had occasion to inquire into its offerings in the studio visual arts — one of its strong points, I was told — there wasn’t a single course in digital graphics of any sort. Fine Artists presumably do not do this sort of thing. But of course the fine arts are doing it all the time now. And arts which we usually think of as media-based to begin with — film, most obviously — are facing a revolution just as profound as that facing written text.

And there is a profound revolution in educational techniques occurring as well. If we really wanted to prepare our students for it, though, I don’t think we should send them to our local Ed School for two years’ worth of pedagogical methods. It would make more sense to send them to the firms which are creating the new multimedia programs, firms like The Voyager Co. or And Corp., or Lucasfilm, or the work being done by Disney and MCA for the new generation of theme parks. That’s where the real educational revolution is taking pace, the revolution we would attend to if we really wanted to prepare our students for their world rather than ours. Yet again and again, people working in all these areas of the “real world” for which we are now to prepare our students say the same thing: “no one is trained to do not only the work, but the kind of work, we need them to do.”

Here I must pause for a moment to acknowledge the objections to what I have just said which already must be rising in the breast of every right-thinking humanist. For many humanists, perhaps the majority, would deny that education ought to prepare our students for the world we live in now. “Surely humanists should be the ones to defend, instead, the traditional culture based on The Great Books, the culture which transcends time and place and will provide a secure platform of ethical values upon which students can stand in a changing world” — should defend everything, that is, which we mean by “education” as against “training.” Or, reading the signs on the other side of the current humanist political boulevard, “Surely humanists should be the ones pointing out the deep internal contradictions of late-capitalist consumerist culture. Surely we should not be teaching our students to accept this world and work in it, but to reject it and subvert it.” These two “Surely” arguments are the most common humanist responses to the educational world we live in now, and I want to assure you that I have not forgotten them and will return to them by and by. But before I do, let me try to map what the world of electronic “text” looks like, and plot on it the changes implied for university and disciplinary structures and procedure.

What happens when you write and read on an electronic screen rather than on a piece of paper? Well, the first change comes in the nature of authority. Humanistic scholarship and humanistic thinking have since the Renaissance been built upon the fixed text, the classical word recovered, edited, and printed in its purity for all time. We have made this over into a general cultural ideal, a fixed canon of Great Books which together embody Western cultural history and moral values. The Great Values all live there in the fixed printed texts, and we need only read and ponder to be made whole again beyond confusion. Clearly enough, electronic text changes all this. The electronic reader, unlike the printed one, can interact with the text and change it, rearrange it with subheadings to make it clearer or suit the immediate purpose, reformat it in a different typeface for easier reading, intersperse it with a commentary no longer marginal but as central as the canonical text itself. Readers become writers. Critics become creators.

Many things change thereby. In electronic artistic media, as Stuart Brand has pointed out, there is no “final cut,” no final form. Films, rock songs, and computer games are now being produced with alternative endings among which the audience may choose. In the computer-based genre of interactive fiction, the reader collaborates with the original author to “write” and at the same time reenact the fiction. Digital music of all sorts is now available which invites, with one degree or another of conscious didacticism, the creative interaction of the listener/composer. Computer artists work in a medium dynamic by its very nature; their main problem is how to “print” their work — fix it in a single form — for a peripheral non-electronic distribution.

This volatility metamorphoses scholarly inquiry in the same way. Western poetics and philosophy are transformed, for a start. The Aristotelian categories of beginning, middle, and end, it turns out, are based on fixed texts. Think of all the arguments about coherence and Arnoldian perfection of artistic form which are based on these Aristotelian coordinates. Again, such arguments have been made a general ideal of written expression of all sorts. All our arguments build toward a conclusion, a “final cut.” We find scholarly disputation unthinkable without one. How else do we separate the true from the false, the good from the bad?

And this same volatility, as we have already seen, dissolves the boundaries between the arts. At the center of this repositioning in the human sensorium stands a major readjustment of the alphabet/image ratio in ordinary communication. We are now using images for a wide range of communication which formerly used written, alphabetic explanation. We see this not only in the digital videographic effects used on broadcast television, but increasingly in the daily communication and training procedures of business, government, and the military. The cultural prejudices of alphabetic literacy make us interpret this change automatically as a threat and a degradation. People who need a bottle sign to find the liquor store are people who can’t read, illiterates.

If we want to prepare our students for the world out there, it must be a new kind of preparation for a very different world. What would a Freshman Composition Handbook look like if it were a guide to the world of electronic text rather than print? What first principles would it avow, and what practices would it advise? I share these speculations with you here because they involve equally the teaching of literature and writing, and because they span the whole spectrum from practical pedagogical details to profound theoretical implications. For what happens to one textbook will happen to them all, to some degree to all books, as electronic instruction moves into the bloodstream of higher education.

What would such an electronic text look like? Well, we must begin by saying that our Handbook cannot be a textbook at all, not a book at all, and that we have as yet no word for the multi-media entity into which it has metamorphosed. And its conception of “text” is so different from print that we probably need another word for it, too. And the “reader” — his or her role differs so from a print reader that we need a new word here, too. Both “author” and “authority” become softened and diffused as the reading event moves from a one-time exchange to a continuing conversation.

Our new text-non-book will be “published” in a different way, too. It will be a dynamic, open-ended information system, critiqued and updated on a daily basis by its users, both local and distant, both teacher and student. It will be “published” on telephone lines — if the regulatory environment permits it — or through fiber optic ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) of some sort. Such systemic textbooks will grow, take on local coloration and emphasis, mutate into new forms of collective cultural enterprise, as they become part of that gigantic structure of 30,000 electronic billboards already out there. Not only will the idea of single authorship be knocked for a loop, but royalty payments, copyright law, and academic merit badges for publication as well. Such systems will clearly be self-selective for multiple levels of difficulty, and soon for different languages. They will carry, too, a remarkable charge of self-teaching power which will force renegotiation of the teacher-student contract, a renegotiation already reported by those teaching in networked computer classrooms.

And there will be a final new expressive parameter for the electronic reader as well — the manipulation of scale. The non-linear nature of hypertextual information has been universally remarked upon but dynamic scaling is at least as important. I refer not only to the ability to manipulate typography, crucial as that is, but to decide on what scale you are going to read, what levels of generality you need for your particular purpose. We all do this now by skimming books, of course, but in so doing we often miss — I speak as a dedicated skimmer — crucial elements this way. Outlining programs only suggest how scaling decisions will affect the reading of electronic text. And, of course, every move from single workstation to class network to local and then national network is a scaling decision as well.

Such a delivery system will teach a very different kind of composition lesson; what will it look like? (I know “delivery system” sounds too much like a rival for UPS, but I haven’t come up with a better term.) Here are a few oracular speculations.

First, the essay will no longer be the fundamental unit of writing instruction. The world will not come to an end therefore; the essay was not always central. In classical times it was the declamation, in the Middle Ages, the letter; now it will be something else, partaking I would guess of both declamation and letter.

Second, we can back off a turn or two on the thumbscrew of spelling instruction, spelling checkers being what they are.

Third, surely there will be some kind of fundamental change in the nature of punctuation. The present system was devised as an aide-memoire for the public performance of a written text. Electronic text offers a much larger repertoire of performative signs — I am thinking here of the use on bulletin boards of certain letters or signs as tonal colorizers, to indicate the spirit in which to read — and it seems likely that they will come into more common use. Again, I don’t think the world will come to an end if they do. Think of all the human effort spent on teaching the rules of punctuation; suppose we didn’t have to do it. Or at least had some new rules to play around with.

Fourth, writing will be taught as a three-dimensional, not a two-dimensional art. Hypertext does this in one way. Computer animation will do it in another. Prose as we know it, printed prose, is based on an aesthetic of black and white linear renunciation. We use “figures of speech,” but we never let the figures realize themselves in their native iconic form. Ever since Greek rhetoric created the basic figures of speech to recreate in a written culture some of the powers of oral speech and gesture, we have implied patterns — this is what one branch of rhetorical figuration is all about — but we have never let them complete themselves. Now, we can let them explicate themselves in animations selected by the reader. The text will move. And given the current state of digital animation programs, it will move in three dimensions.

And of course we will add the whole dimension of color. We talk about the “colors of rhetoric,” but our texts are all in “black and white,” that phrase itself having come to symbolize the stability of legal writ. Now, the colors of rhetoric can become indeed multicolored. And with better compression techniques and gigantic memory storage, we can add sound to our reading as well. Word, image, and sound will be inextricably intertwined in a dynamic and continually shifting mixture, as is happening in the world of work. Clearly, we will need a new theory of prose style to cope with it. In fact, I would put the matter more strongly: for the first time, we will have a genuine theory of prose style, rather than the present folk wisdom and exercises in the psychology of rumor. It is only by seeing the enormous area of expressiveness which printed prose excludes that you see how it works, and that area of exclusion is just what is now coming clear. Think of having a theory of prose style as clear as the periodic table in chemistry. It would make things a lot easier. Upon such a theory our new electronic text non-text non-book will be built.

Fifth, I think this new mixture in the human sensorium will revolutionize the world of instruction which we now stigmatize as “remedial.” Some people are better at images or sounds than at words, and some people who have not had the verbal education they wanted or needed can come to it later in life through images and sounds. It will all be one single spectrum of expressivity, with no need to stigmatize any area of it.

Such a delivery system would condition the teaching of literature, too, would it not? The whole of Aristotelian poetics is pretty much stood on its ear by a changeable, interactive, and non-linear text which has no final beginnings, middles, and endings, no unchanging dominant tonalities, and no non-negotiable rules about verbal excess and expressive self-consciousness. And much of current poststructuralist theory suffers a sea-change as well. If the reader can adjust the writing by becoming the writer, and in any combination desired, a great deal of the current controversy about the role of the reader can be conveniently shelved. There is as much connection between reader and writer, or as little, as you want to dial in. Is every critic a creator and vice versa? Is textual order a product of our rage for it more than of the text itself? We can shelve that debate too. Contrive whatever mixture you want. Is there a neutral language of conceptual expression or is all expression radically metaphorical? If we cannot settle this controversy finally, we can at least point now to a very broad spectrum of expressivity that includes not only words but images and sounds, a spectrum controlled by a real general theory of expressivity (which is what a theory of prose must become). This spectrum runs from least to most metaphorical and you can locate yourself wherever you want. And you have an identical spectrum for the reader as for the text. Mix and match just as you like, anywhere along either one.

I’ve said that the world of “remediation” is as print- and book-centered as the rest of our pedagogical apparatus and may be expected to change. If we move our gaze from this bottom of the curriculum to the top, to the interdisciplinary humanities course now attracting so much press attention, we’ll see a similar metamorphosis going on. For the deepest implication of electronic text for the teaching of literature is that literature can no longer be taught in isolation from the other arts. Digitization has made the arts interchangeable. You can change a visual signal into a musical one. You can zoom in on a letter until it changes from an alphabetic sign to an abstract pixel-painting. In fact, I suggest that the digital equivalence of the arts has finally provided a genuinely theoretical basis not only for comparing the arts, but for teaching them together. The new theory of prose style proves to be a general theory of style for the arts altogether. Such reflections suggest that the current debate about the humanities curriculum (the streetfight between Great Books and Relevant Race/Gender/Class Books) is otiose, based on a print technology totally at variance with the electronic medium in which artistic activity and its reception will take place. And, of course, a completely different kind of educational practice is suggested by this line of thinking, a wholly different kind of core curriculum in fact, dominated by a rhetoric of the digital arts. Again, such an educational practice is intrinsically, essentially, self-consciously, theoretical.

Electronic text allows us to reconceptualize the whole history of literary criticism; it seems, under electronic light, to consist of a series of arbitrary positions taken toward fixed alphabetic information. The great critics have differed since Aristotle on the nature of structure, on the relation of literature to the other arts of image and sound, on the desirable place and density of verbal ornament, on the self-consciousness with which typographical clues were to be used, to distinguish prose from verse, for example, on the relation of “literary” to “nonliterary” discourse, and so on. All of these expressive parameters are so much more easily adjustable in electronic text that perhaps our historical differences have been generated as much by an inflexible technology as by genuine differences of principle. Might electronic text, by making all arbitrary positions adjustable, make them all potentially correct by removing their contradictions with one another? It will be fun, at all events, to see how things work out. The history of criticism may fall back into time, into a continuously roiling present.

Electronic text will also serve as the vehicle for displaying all of Western literature in a new light. Since much of this literature is oral in origin and nature, and self-consciously rhetorical, and since electronic text is both oral and rhetorical to a degree, such “re-purposing” can reveal to us aspects of our greatest works of art — literary, artistic, and musical — which we have never seen before.

I think, then, that the whole of Western culture, for which The Great Books has come to be a convenient shorthand phrase, is not threatened by the world of electronic text, but immensely strengthened and invigorated. I think we shall come to understand our great literary texts, and especially their neglected oral and rhetorical aspects, in ways which we could never before have understood. The Great Books side of our politicized curricular street need not feel imperiled.

But what about the other side, the cultural Left, and its critique of late capitalism? How should that critique react to this unprecedented technological determinism? Here we surprise a curious case of cultural convergence. For, if we look at the world of electronic text from the perspective of what we have come to call Literary Theory, such an electronic world comes not as a technological vis à tergo, but as a fulfillment. The conceptual, even the metaphysical, world digital text creates — dynamic rather than static, bi-stable rather than monostable, open-ended rather than complete, participatory rather than authorial, based as much on image and sound as on word — is the world of postmodern thought, the world which begins with Italian Futurism and Dada at the beginning of the century and is now being focused in theoretical discussions in disciplines all across the human sciences. In introducing our students to electronic text in the practical world of work, it turns out that we also introduce them to the central issues of our intellectual life. The world of “training” at its most practical turns out, in its essential core, to be very like the world of “education” at its most theoretical, whichever side of the theoretical street we happen to walk on.

But if the intellectual, humanistic center of our university world, its fundamental debate between Right and Left, is oddly and surprisingly affirmed rather than threatened by the world of electronic text, I’m not sure we can say the same thing for the university’s administrative and disciplinary structures. If the arts are finding a common digital base, can the academic disciplines and departments which study them remain indefinitely apart? If the arts and sciences are confronting an emergent discipline we call “visualization,” will not such a scientific/humanist half-breed find itself the bastard at the academic family reunion? If what we hopefully call the “real world” is moving toward the electronic word, can we continue to plan our curriculum on great books? Can we, in fact, continue to think of the curriculum in our customary linear terms — preparatory courses, intermediate ones, advanced, prerequisites, the whole big catalogue enchilada?

Hypertexts spin a world of information out of a single unitary artistic work or political topic. They bring their “preparation” with them at every point, aim to make the student self-sufficient for information, able to reach back in time and out in space for the “background” needed to understand the “text” at issue. They stand, in their fundamental structure and rationale, at odds with our heretofore unquestioned idea that the curriculum ought to be linear if it possibly could. Especially will this be so if we can succeed in using one part of the brain to illuminate the others in new ways, so that “remedial” students who are good with sights or sounds but not with words can change media when they get stuck. It is not too much to suggest that the whole idea of educational order, at every level, will have to be renegotiated. We won’t be able, for a start, to cry “Back to the Basics!” because we really won’t know what the “Basics” are.

The question of access to new educational technologies by disadvantaged groups is certainly a hot topic now, but it has not gone beyond wondering how to buy enough computers for everyone. The real issues are considerably deeper and more complex than that. We really must cease conducting the whole “literacy” debate on the basis of a print technology which is even now in radical metamorphosis.

And if to digitize cultural texts is to desubstantialize them, what of the whole architectural plan of a university, based as it is on substance, the book, the embodied teacher, the chairs we rent out to our students? And what of the only center the multiversity has left, the library? The library world feels depaysé today, and rightly so. Both the physical entities, the buildings and the books they contain, can no longer form the basis for planning. And the curatorial function has metamorphosed, if I may borrow a phrase from an archivist acquaintance, “from curatorial to interpretive.” Librarians of electronic information find their job now a radically rhetorical one — they must consciously construct human attention-structures rather than assemble a collection of books according to commonly accepted rules. They have, perhaps unwillingly, found themselves transported from the ancillary margin of the human sciences to their center. If this be so — and I don’t see how it can be doubted — how should we train librarians, much less plan the building where they will work? Maybe the novelty of the challenge explains why the number of Master of Library Science degrees awarded in the last 10 years has fallen by 50%.

We shall also have to renegotiate completely another aspect of our university structure which we have taken for granted — the environment of copyright law which defines our major product at the university, “intellectual property.” Anglo-American copyright law since the Statute of Anne at the beginning of the 18th century has been built on print, arose from print. And since the famous Sayre case of 1785 (the case which first defined the two extremes of social benefit and authorial profit upon which we still proceed) and the subsequent recodification of copyright law by a Victorian statute of 1842, it has built on a second pillar — the idea of originality, or authorial substance and authority. That, too, as we have seen, is called into question by electronic text. Electronic text and copyright law, in fact, are on a collision course at practically every point. Think of all the ways in which the structure of the modern university is based on the idea of originality — faculty recruitment and advancement for a start, all our individual and collective merit badges are tied to that now no longer unquestioned star.

And another protective umbrella, like copyright so familiar and reliable in the world of print that we scarcely notice it, has started to leak. As de Sola Pool points out in a brilliant recent book, Technologies of Freedom, the First Amendment guarantees of free speech are strongly print-based as well. These guarantees have by no means been uniformly extended to electronic communication, which tolerates a degree of regulation, by powers both public and private, which we would think intolerable for print. Here, too, a great deal of fundamental rethinking lies before us. And we might go yet further, into the nature of law itself. The legal changes heralded by electronic text will not be confined to copyright law or First Amendment issues.

The influence of “electronic text,” in our now expanded sense of that term, must then be pervasive. If this is so, why are we not discussing this influence, as in almost every instance of which I am aware, we are not? Surelv it is because the university departmental, disciplinary, and administrative structures work implicitly — and often explicitly — to discourage it. It is almost as if the university’s structures were invented specifically to deny a place for such a vital conversation to occur.

Where will the architects of future university information structures come from? Where will they be trained? What department will they be in? In humanities, all the basic educational contracts are now being renegotiated — and they are all being renegotiated off campus. If educating our students for the world they will live in, for a competitive global economy and the unprecedented high level of daily symbolic processing which comes with it, really is to be a dominant university purpose rather than a routine Chancellor’s Exhortation, then we must find ways to bring these new contracts onto campus and to understand them. We must modify our departmental and disciplinary structures so that this vital conversation can occur, and be prepared to modify them much more after the conversation has occurred. I am not sure just where the conversation should take place. The library, or library school, seems a logical place. So, from a purely theoretical standpoint, does the Freshman Composition program, since we are dealing with what is finally a revolution in social rhetoric. All the regular academic departments seem disqualified by their characteristic professional bias. Perhaps we need a new entity all together.

But we must begin a coherent central conversation somewhere, and it must include the main players in university governance. If we don’t begin it, and if we don’t move forward swiftly into basic changes in institutional structure and practice, we mustn’t be surprised when American society, public and private, steps in and does it for us. For it is hard not to conclude that what we are doing now is not preparing our students for the world they will really live in, and the lives they will really live out, but training them, instead, to be the “clerks of a forgotten mood.”