Beyond the net: or, why you should donate books on May the 26th
The 2009 sci fi flick Surrogates is set in a future where humans spend almost all of their time lying in bed, hooked up to virtual reality machines. In the world of The Surrogates, virtual reality is so popular that people often forget that they have real, flesh and blood bodies that require feeding and cleaning. I sometimes think about the dystopia of Surrogates when I read the pronouncements of the more fervent evangelists for the internet. Over the past decade or so a succession of businessmen, superprogrammers, and politicians have proclaimed that the net has the potential to bring prosperity, equality of opportunity, and wisdom to the benighted peoples of the world. Too many of the apostles of the net, though, seem to forget that a troubled world, full of intractable distances and unstoppable forces, exists outside cyberspace.
David Willetts, Britain's Minister for Universities and Science, recently joined the ranks of the internet evangelists. Announcing plans to make all of the academic research published in Britain freely available online, Willetts proclaimed that the internet had the potential to 'return knowledge' to 'the people who paid for it', and eliminate problems of access to education. Willett seems to believe that, simply by putting academic material online, he can eliminate the vast gaps in resources between Britain's exclusive top-tier universities and the rest of its tertiary sector, and atone for the increases in student fees that have put many young Britons off tertiary study.
Willett's online archive of academic material will benefit researchers who work outside universities - people like local historians, genealogists, and journalists - but it will not substitute for a training in scholarly methods. The archive won't turn millions of Britons into brilliant autodidacts, and it won't destroy the enormous advantages that a few years at an elite university give to a few young Britons.
But David Willett is not alone in his immoderate enthusiasm for online research. In many Western nations, including New Zealand, university libraries have for years now been merrily disposing of supposedly obsolete back issues of journals, and signing up to online databases which provide access to those journals. Creaking old books have gone into the shredder, too, and been replaced by links to electronic archives like Project Gutenberg.
There is no doubt that the creation of online databases and libraries has benefited many scholars. Instead of groping about in shadowy library stacks, students at many universities can now access old articles or obscure tomes with the click of a mouse. Writers can see their articles and books reach more dispersed audiences. It is easy to forget, though, that in many parts of the world online research is a physical and financial impossibility. In these places scholars must work outside the vast virtual reality machine we call the internet.
Last Friday I met Sisi'uno Helu, the Director of the 'Atenisi Institute, a private university on the swampy western fringe of Nuku'alofa, the capital and only city of the Kingdom of Tonga. 'Atenisi was founded in the 1960s by Sisi'uno's late father Futa, and became famous for its dedication to classical scholarship, Tongan song and dance, and democratic politics. But Tonga is a poor country with a ruling elite that is uncomfortable with free speech and open enquiry, and 'Atenisi has often struggled to find resources. Helu and his students raised and maintained the university's buildings themselves, and their library and laboratories were always meagrely stocked. The Helus are a famously musical family, and in Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's film about 'Atenisi, Sisi'uno's opera singer sister Atolomake is shown performing on a makeshift stage near a wild section of the Tongan coast. As wave after enormous wave breaks on the rocks behind her, Atolomake sends her voice higher and higher, striving to drown out the dissonance with phrases from Verdi. Her performance becomes a metaphor for the struggle of 'Atenisi to rise above the blows of poverty and persecution.
Last Friday Sisi'uno and I swapped stories about Tonga's extraordinarily slow internet connection. As a tourist in Tonga, I'd found the slow pace of the net an irritation; as an educator, Sisi'uno finds it a disaster. Tongans with access to computers can, with a bit of patience, check their e mails, and scan the news at Matangi Tonga or The Guardian Online. The slowness of their internet service makes it very difficult, though, to perform the complex searches required by academic databases, or to download material from online journals. A scholar at the University of Auckland can click his mouse and download the pdf version of an essay from the Journal of the Polynesian Society in a couple of seconds; his counterpart at 'Atenisi would have to wait for many hours, or until one of the frequent disruptions of Tonga's internet service knocked him offline.
Even if Tonga's internet service were improved, most of its students would have little hope of roaming the world of online scholarship, because they cannot rely on regular access to a computer. Few Tongans can afford a laptop, and few schools can provide more than a handful of computers to their students.
Tonga's poor internet connection and lack of computers make old-fashioned 'hardcopy' books and serials crucial to the education of its young people. Unfortunately, the country is not richly endowed with either bookstores or libraries. The Friendly Islands Bookshop has a virtual monopoloy on the book trade in Tonga, and is notorious for charging high prices and carrying inadequate stock. The last time I visited the Nuku'alofa branch of the FIB, the only novel I could find was a paperback copy of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which was priced at a cool seventy-five pa'anga. Tonga has a long and heady literary tradition, and has in recent decades produced a world-class fiction writer in Epeli Hau'ofa and a renowned poet in Konai Helu Thaman, but the FIB is dominated by men who wrote thousands of years ago in languages like Hebrew and Aramaic. It is easier to find a dictionary of Hebrew than a Tongan phrasebook in the store.
The deficiencies of the Friendly Islands Bookshop would not matter so much if Tonga possessed a good public library system. But Tongatapu, the country's capital island and home to seventy percent of its people, lacks a single public library. Tonga has a literacy rate which compares well to those of much wealthier nations like New Zealand, but its people lack the plentiful supplies of books that Kiwis take for granted.
With Sisi'uno's agreement, then, I'm encouraging the bibliophiles who turn up to the launch of brief at the Onehunga Workingman's Club on Saturday the 26th of May to bring a book or three with them. Whether it's a novel you want to pass on, a political polemic you feel evangelical about and possess in duplicate, a textbook you no longer study or teach, or a tome by Scott Hamilton you bought out of guilt and now want to get rid of, your gift will be appreciated. The donated books will be packed up and posted to 'Atenisi. If you can't bring books to donate, you can always leave some coins in a cup to help pay for postage. For more information about the launch, or about donating books, flick me an e mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
[Posted by Maps/Scott]