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libraryI’ll have more to say about Tom Nichols’s excellent new book The Death of Expertise in the days ahead, but for now I want to underline one important observation he makes.

Namely: “The Internet . . . is nothing like a library” (110).

In the recent conversation about who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere, I saw in at least one place that the blogosphere was likened to a great big library--a place where diverse viewpoints are housed, a place where people come to seek truth, a place where ideas are not censored and readers need discernment. Without wanting to deny these general points as they relate to Christians in the blogosphere, I believe it is a necessary part of discernment that we realize the internet (of which the Christian blogosphere is a part) is nothing like a library.

Yes, a library has many different volumes. And yes, we can go there to search for answers and acquire knowledge. But a library is a highly curated collection of knowledge. We have a Michigan State University librarian in our church. She has a master’s degree in library science. She oversees a section of materials related to European history. She is constantly reading through journals and periodicals to find the most important new books to purchase. She also gets rid of old stuff that has proven to be relatively worthless. She is also a wealth of information when people have questions about where to find the best, most important stuff. She doesn't have an ideological grid when it comes to what goes in the library, but she does have an expertise grid. Almost all the books that get into a library like MSU’s are by people with credentials, with academic positions, or with institutional legitimacy.

I'm not suggesting the internet should be like a well-staffed research library (it never could be like that). But the analogy with a library makes it sound like this wild proliferation of online opinions and ideas is just what we've always had. It's not. The internet is only like a library if anyone can come to your library and put their term papers wherever they want, scatter their files on the floor, and line the walls with pornography.

This doesn’t mean the blogosphere should be limited to those with degrees and tenure-track appointments. Anyone with access to the internet can put their ideas out for the world to see (or ignore). The genie is not going back in the bottle. The point of this post is not to try to tame the internet (who could be trusted with that power?). The point is that we must expect the internet to be wilder than a library. I’d say the internet is like the buffet at Golden Corral--something for everyone, much of it unhealthy, but plenty of good stuff if you know where to look--except that a restaurant must meet all sorts of health and safety standards. I can’t bring my gluten free cookies and plop them down on the dessert tray.

At best, the internet is like a wild forest. No one controls it. No one manicures it. It just grows and grows. And in the forest you’ll find plenty of beauty. But be careful, eat the wrong mushrooms and you could die.

At worst, the internet is like a wide open garbage dump. Every day people dump more and more onto the pile. Sure you may be able to find something valuable, but you’ll have to wade through a lot of trash first.

So, by all means, enjoy a meal from time to time at the internet buffet. Explore the overgrown trees and breathtaking vistas. Bend over and pick up that love poem surrounded by rotten banana peals. The Christian blogosphere has plenty that is good and true and beautiful, and plenty that is nasty, brutish, and rarely short. Expect to find truth. Expect to find error. Just don’t expect it to be a library.


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11 thoughts on “The Internet Is Not a Library”

  1. Phil says:

    This is such an important point especially for our young people who seem so inextricably tied to the internet via their phones. Frankly I’d say it’s moving in the direction of the garage dump these days and requires much maturity and strength of character to wade through it.

  2. Despite its problems (especially the porn thing), I’m glad the internet isn’t “policed” or screened by the equivalent of a librarian. While libraries are to be valued, nonetheless the selection process reflects the particular worldview and ideology of whatever institution is controlling that particular library.

    By contrast, the internet is an ideological free-for-all, and that has inherent value.

  3. wjm says:

    -non standard comment-
    Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts for us out in the Ether World. They are well written and always make me consider the various topics in ways I otherwise might not. I am thankful, for that.

  4. Dean says:

    The thing is experts also make errors (sometimes great errors) & go on & on. Libraries also reflect much of what is on the net or in society. Libraries in our neck of the woods are becoming more about entertainment with DVD’s & CD’s & they often promote mainstream social issues.

    My wife works in a library for a private school & she is often reading new material & on the look out for things that may be harmful for younger children, older students are allowed more discretion to apply wisdom & maturity. Librarians are incredibly busy & work hard keeping everything in order.

    You need a filter for both I reckon. I dont think I have the respect for books that KDY has, I am more hands on & like to get to the bottom of stuff quickly if I can.

  5. Tim WIlcoxson says:

    While there are many helpful points made, the comparison between the Internet and a library is a false parallel. The Internet is a globally distributed network of networks infrastructure, and does not have such a highly specific function as a library. Even if you were to abstract up and talk about “the web” you still wouldn’t be specific enough. For it to be a more accurate parallel, you would have to talk about specific web applications such as wikipedia.

    Perhaps from the perspective of the average person, the Internet is “source of knowledge” and then for others a library is “source off knowledge” and so have competing interests. But considering libraries function via the Internet, and use the web to resource their users, libraries are now a part of “the Internet” and so cannot be contrasted with the Internet. The best bet is to educate people on what the Internet is and is not, and what a library is and is not. And I think some points in this article are helpful to that end. Thanks!

  6. Joe M says:

    “She doesn’t have an ideological grid”… perhaps, but librarians are notorious for very much having such grids. Which is one reason the internet has been such a conversation changer — there are no institutional gatekeepers to censor out the opinions eshewed by various establishments. Evangelical scholarship would be much harder to access minus the evolution of the web, for example.

  7. Serving Kids in Japan says:

    At best, the internet is like a wild forest…

    At worst, the internet is like a wide open garbage dump.

    Funny. That’s kind of how I’d describe TGC’s website. After all, they promote a backwards-thinking racist and misogynist like Doug Wilson, and let him post articles here. Where’s the discernment there?

  8. David Pitman says:

    True. Rather like the manner in which The Gospel Coalition is not the church, nor even a church. Yet many presume its pronouncements to carry ecclesiastical authority.

  9. Ann Voskamp says:

    Helpful thoughts. Thank you for continuing the conversation. Humbly grateful.

  10. Scott Sauls says:

    Some helpful thoughts in this essay. I also appreciated the library metaphor when I first read it, and I think that I still do. As I read your essay here, the thought occurred to me that there are curated libraries (i.e., Michigan State), as well as more “wild” libraries that include every submission, regardless of worldview (i.e., the Library of Congress), because the curation assumes a more pluralistic readership. Framing this conversation in the biblical narrative, I wonder if the “curated” libraries are the ones Paul referenced in Acts 13 — citing the carefully curated Jewish literature (specifically, the Torah and the Psalms) as his bridge for preaching the gospel to the Jews. Then, in Acts 17, he references resources from a more “wild and diverse” library — Stoic and Epicurean literature, no less — at Athens, an environment (not unlike today’s internet) that was more pluralistic in nature, and for which Paul’s chosen audience valued such diversity of perspective in their conversation. Maybe for today’s Christian writers, bloggers, Facebook posters, and so on, we approach the internet in a similar way that Paul approached the Athenian scholars — affirming truth and beauty, regardless of its source, in every way that we can…while pushing back on un-truth and ugly, regardless of its source, also in every way that we can? Maybe it’s a library after all…but more like the Athenian library of Acts 17 versus the Pisidian Antioch library of Acts 13. Whatever it is, library or not, one thing we cannot expect it to be — as the original article pointed out — is a church.

  11. Josh says:

    I agree with you. Very good article.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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