In memoriam Patricia Battin-- influential warrior in the battle over the library of the future

Where copyright contents and the printed word are concerned, nothing so divides the over and under 40-year old’s than the cultural role of the library [or at least, as Merpel says, together with the print and ink newspaper format]. This Kat's father arrived as an immigrant to the US from South America after World War II and immediately went about trying to learn enough English (it being his fifth spoken language) to manage his daily affairs.The solution was to buy a movie ticket as early as possible in the day and stay for as long as he could in the movie theatre. Mastery of reading and writing was an unaffordable luxury.

But for this Kat and his generation, television having become a household staple, and reading and writing the gateway to acculturation, the movie theatre was of less interest. It was his local public library that became the holy of holies.

That library was one of many funded by Andrew Carnegie (over 2500 world-wide). Perhaps the steel baron was doing charitable penance for the questionable means that he had used on his route to tycoondom. Whatever his motivation, the local library became this Kat's home away from home. The library was his passport to the wider world, and its sounds, smells and tactile sensations took on a spiritual, almost mystical, significance.

Then came the digital revolution and its challenge to the library as we knew it. And with it arose an unlikely champion, Patricia Battin, who died on April 22th, at the age of 89, as reported on June 5th by The New York Times. In her death, IPKat recounts her struggles, dating back to the 1970's, on behalf of reconciling between the physical and the digital in the service of the once and future library.

Armed with a BA degree in English from Swarthmore College, Mr. Battin knew about books and their contents. Not surprisingly, perhaps, she entered the world of the library, which was at the cusp of an almost existential challenge. As she later noted--
Every principle and assumption upon which we have built our libraries for the best hundred years is being questioned today.
She took up the challenge.

In Ms. Battin's view, the ultimate role of the library was the preservation of contents rather than the “vessel” in which they were contained. To that end, digitization could be an ally in the face of the physical deterioration of books and the demands of space placed upon the library. She observed--
The book is a marvelous technology for use, but it is a cumbersome dissemination format and increasingly frail storage format in this age of rapid telecommunications.
Not that Ms. Battin saw the end of the book. But it would become only one of several such means for disseminating contents. And when the physical book could no longer provide a physical vessel for its contents, technology was there to save its contents. Her career was dedicated to promoting this vision.

Ms. Battin rose in the library world to become the director of library services at Columbia University in 1974, thereby being the first woman to serve as head of the library at an Ivy League institution. Soon thereafter she created among the earliest electronic card catalogues. Later, as vice president for information services at Columbia, she became one of the first institutional librarians to oversee both the services of the traditional library and the institution's information technology.

She leveraged her dual role to implement what, at the time, was a radical concept, repositioning the library as "one-stop information shopping center", where old and new formats for maintaining and distributing information would become complements rather than zero-sum alternatives. In her own words--
Scholars should not have to go to the library for information stored in books and journals, [and] then to the computer center for information stored electronically….
She is also credited with spearheading the efforts for institutions to share materials, critical in the face of already declining resources for acquisitions.

In 1999, Ms. Battin received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton in recognition of having converted millions of decaying books into microfilm. The chancellor of Emory University later called her—
one of the key figures of the last of the 20th century because of the leadership she has brought to the area of information management in the country.
So many of her initiatives seem obvious in our present moment that we tend to forget the pushback that she received at the time. The claim was that in a headlong dash to embrace technology, the result would be the needless destruction of original documents.

Perhaps her most vigorous opponent was the author, Nicholson Baker. “No”, he argued, books were not crumbling. As he saw it, Ms. Battin’s scheme only led (in the words of the New York Times obituary), to “the guillotining of book bindings to flatten the pages for the microfilm camera.” The real enemy was “reformatting”. Then, as now, the polemics took over. Searcher magazine importuned— “Don’t Burn Books! Burn Librarians!” [Full disclosure, Mrs. Kat was a librarian.]

But, at the end of the day, books survive, and libraries survive, even if the librarian is now more likely to be called an information specialist and digitization is all over. Given the visceral importance of the library to this Kat and his generation, he can only say to Ms. Battin—"thank you”.

Picture on upper right by Bgottsab and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Picture on left by Lantuszka and is licensed the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Picture on lower right is in the public domain as a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.

By Neil Wilkof
In memoriam Patricia Battin-- influential warrior in the battle over the library of the future In memoriam Patricia Battin--  influential warrior in the battle over the library of the future Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, June 14, 2019 Rating: 5

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