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Alaskan Range: Rocketships And Libraries

"If libraries are not moving ahead they are dying,'' declares Greg Hill.

Some of us will always be children of the Space Age, forever attracted to the idea of sleek, graceful rockets crossing the solar system and reaching the stars. Reading science fiction propelled my interest in reading through adolescence and fortunately coincided with the Golden Age of Science Fiction: Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and especially Isaac Asimov. Asimov attributed his success to having a public library nearby during his formative years and wrote entertainingly on numerous topics, ranging from Constantinople and the Bible to Shakespeare and limericks.

Asimov’s best known for his science fiction, with “I, Robot” of 1950 being one of his best known. In it he articulated the fundamental rules robots must follow to successfully co-exist with humans in his robot books. Originally known as “the Three Laws of Robotics,” a term he coined, it grew over time to at least five laws: robots must not injure human beings, they must obey humans’ commands, and they must protect themselves so long as the first two laws aren’t violated. Asimov added a fourth, or “zeroth,” law: robots can’t hurt humanity as a whole.

Other robotic laws have evolved, such as “robots must know they’re robots,” but the original laws appeared in a 1942 Asimov short story, “Runaround.” The idea emerged from a conversation Asimov had with John W. Campbell on December 23, 1940. Campbell was the long-time editor of Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories, two fertile pulp-fiction proving grounds for Asimov’s generation of emerging writers. Campbell’s influence on their writing abilities and styles, and his innovative plot suggestions, is legendary. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says of Campbell, “More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern science fiction.” Asimov called Campbell “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.”

Despite my space-race background (ah, Sputnik! Blinking across the October sky!), reading an MSNBC.com article, “Robots Invent Their Own Spoken Language,” gave me pause. “When robots talk to each other, they’re not generally using language as we think of it, with words to communicate both concrete and abstract concepts,” author Even Ackerman assures us. The robots concocted by Australian researchers “consist of a mobile platform equipped with a camera, laser range finder, and sonar for mapping obstacle avoidance.” They also carry microphones and speakers to communicate with each other. They’re programmed to make up words using random syllables to describe places they encounter, and to share the new words and locations.

“Robo-readers,” on the other hand, are computers programmed “to scan student essays and spit out a grade,” according a 2012 article from ScienceWorldReport.com. Writing improves with practice, and American high school students are terrible writers, so the “theory is that teachers would assign more writing if they didn’t have to read it.” Machines grade multiple choice tests, but essays are much more difficult. Even if such a device works, mightn’t it violate some of Asimov’s Robot Laws?

Other laws, like S.R Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science, are more soothing. Ranganathana, India’s answer to Melville Dewey, saw a proliferation of mishandled libraries in his early 20th-century India. So he spelled out the most basic concepts of running public libraries properly, and it’s still a useful checklist. His first law, for example, is “Books are for use.” That is, a library’s books exist to be used, not merely displayed. The second is “Every person his book,” or every member of the community should be able to obtain the materials they need.

Third is “Every book its reader.” This means that undesirable or unneeded books, like outdated travel information or building codes, should be removed, or “weeded” as librarians call it, from the library. Fourth is “Save the time of the reader.” Arrange the library so people can utilize the materials as efficiently as possible.

Ranganathan’s fifth rule is “the library is a growing organism.” He knew that libraries must evolve to meet their users’ changing informational demands. That’s why modern libraries circulate e-books instead of papyrus scrolls. That’s also why old librarians leave and new ones arrive to take the institution in new directions. “Onward and upward” is where rocketships and libraries must go. For like sharks, if libraries aren’t moving ahead, they’re dying.


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