Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 597:
ARCHIVE: 2001

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 597.

Today, some thoughts about information storage. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A peculiar mischief came home to me not long ago on a trip. I left my meeting and went to see a highly-touted science museum. What I saw set off warning bells.

The museum was thoroughly modern. It was a hands-on exploratorium for school children. Here and there, mimes did little theater pieces. It offered children the same experiments I did as a college freshman: Turn a knob and measure gravity -- or the period of a pendulum. Place a ball in a stream of air and learn Bernoulli's principle. It was all so sensible, so user-friendly.

So I watched the children. They ran about, randomly throwing balls and pulling levers. They didn't see cause and effect -- all they saw was motion. Meanwhile, their unrewarded excitement drove them to a fever pitch of chaos.

I watched and remembered my own visits to the museum. Mine was quiet and mysterious. I didn't understand everything there, either. But I knew it held secrets I must one day learn. I knew the force ran in that eerie place -- filled with skulls, sarcophaguses, and minerals.

Libraries face a similar issue. Most big library catalogs are now on computers. Soon we'll be able to sit in our office and call up all the major dictionaries and encyclopedias. In a few years we'll also read journal articles on our own computers. But not books -- that's not the way we use books.

Librarian Michael Gorman wonders what that means for libraries. Will they change utterly? What'll become of that inner space? His answer reflects in my own experience. Long ago, in the Army, I'd flee my post and go to nearby William and Mary College. I sat under oak paneling browsing books on anything that caught my fancy. That physical space also held magic, and I drank it in.

Gorman talks of compact moving bookshelves, robot assistance, and videoimage storage. He recites all the hi-tech means for handling information. Then he reminds us: we may have hi-fi's at home, but we still go to concerts. New technologies don't replace the best old technologies. They supplement them.

It's an easy temptation to rush in and replace an old technology while its function is still vital. The new function of museums and libraries is a working interaction with learning. The old function is to retain -- even celebrate -- knowledge. Those buildings once told me the mysterious power of knowledge. We tiptoed and whispered as much to honor that presence as to avoid disturbance. Children and adults alike knew that instinctively.

We want to do all we can to make knowledge accessible. But the ancient lore of our people is precious. And if we forget that, the learning process will become a very empty thing.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gorman, M., The Academic Library in the Year 2001: Dream or Nightmare or Something In Between. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 17, No. 1, March 1991, pp. 4-9.

For more on the directions of the modern museum, see Episodes 902, 925, and 1244. For more on museums in general, use the SEARCH function.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode