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
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
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