Supporting the Intellectual Life of a Democratic Society

Agre, Philip E
Ethics and information technology

What is a digital library for? Here is one way to look at it: the purpose of a digital library is to support the intellectual life of a society. Now, this is a familiar role for a library. We are already accustomed to thinking of libraries as repositories of cultural memory, resources of information, and promoters of literacy. But as information technology becomes radically cheaper and more ubiquitous, and as information services become knitted into the fabric of daily life, we are in a position to ask more deeply what an intellectual life is and how to support it. Existing scholarly and library practices reflect the wisdom of centuries, and we should think twice before throwing them out. Instead, I propose that we recover the underlying logic of these practices, abstract the aspects of them that have lasting value, and then generalize, extend, and democratize them -- that is, make them available to, and adapt them to the purposes of, the citizenry in general and not just to elites. This requires a sustained analysis of intellectual life. Intellectual life is both deeply individual and deeply collective at the same time, and analysis will be required particularly to understand the relation between these two levels.