Amazon, iPhone and Harold Watkins-Shaw

Erol Ahmed, UNSPLASH

I learned today that the latest iPhone will allow us to speak with each other via space satellite. There will no longer be dead zones anywhere on earth. The prophecy of Psalm 139 has therefore come true for our time:

Where can I go from your Spirit?

    Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

    if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

    your right hand will hold me fast.

I guess this is why billionaires travel through space to clear a way for yet more space junk clutter. So good to know, except that I don’t use iPhone technology; my current Android phone provides me with more than enough connectivity, and frankly, enough technology to manage (when it works) in my waking hours.

Really people, what do we really need in order to live well

with each other and in good relationship with the earth? I recall a preacher marvelling at some 1980s medical technology which allowed a doctor in Vancouver to hear a child’s heart in Whitehorse. Today this is of course a given, but at the time, celebration of the technology itself ignored the challenge of finding specialists to live and work in northern locations. A similar challenge exists today here in the BC Interior concerning health care professional supply between Kelowna and Kamloops. Technology assists but less often solves human social problems.

Homo sapiens dance a fine line between the needs and wants of technical advantage. For myself, as a person living daily with vision challenges, technology has been a Godsend. It has allowed me to experience life more deeply through both photography and communication. It has allowed me to view and engage the world more dynamically, effectively and enjoyably. Most importantly it has allowed me to research ideas, projects, books and other media from anywhere in the world. My curiosity is well fed and nourished. If Barbara Kingsolver can say that the Dewey Decimal System saved her life, I can say that technological advances in library access has certainly enriched mine.

First you need to know that I completed high school without a single visit to the school library. The fault was entirely mine; I was an unmotivated student. So when I first arrived at the University of Victoria in September of 1975 the library was like an alien planet to me, no more so as I first encountered the card catalogue room. A dark brown seemingly endless rank of drawered cabinets was touted as the gateway to discovery and academic success.

Now imagine me delving into these treasure troves with poor sight. The cards were levered into overflowing drawers, with sketchy black or red type pasted with ribbons (remember these?) long past clarity. I had to jam my Bosch and Lomb 7X magnifier tightly between cards written in a strange language – BV 4200.A47B355 1912. Admittedly I could have attended a library orientation, an invitation either missed or ignored. Were these catalogues still in place many cards would have been smeared by my tears of frustration.

Fast forward to another university, finding myself slightly better prepared for independent research, and to the wonderful discovery of Microfiche readers. These were a huge improvement as reams of data were now miniaturized on celluloid blue sheets magnified through a reader. In the early evenings the research centre looked like something from the movie ET. Blue glow, as far as the eye could see. Still no search functions, and it took some time to learn how and when to shift between columns, but the improvement in access, and eventually in marks, was palpable.

Jumping forward to 1987 and yet another university things improved still further. Now we could search through reams of green light on heavy, bulky screens, but at least we could search but only if we knew EXACTLY what to search for. The system was anything but intuitive. But library life got better.

Finally shriven of academic study and in the early years of ministry I acquired marvellous office and home technology which allowed me to connect rather clumsily with a few digital libraries. I could request books remotely and very occasionally as online sources began to open up, current articles of special interest.

Stepping backward for a moment, and in my third year of my Bachelor of Music programme I took a bibliography course, a seminar which continues to influence my practice today. My fellow students and I learned how printed data is organized. We even had the opportunity to study and catalogue rare music scores and books. We learned how information is attained, retained, categorized and accessed by future generation of scholars and enthusiasts. Following my graduation from Seminary I was given an old copy of the Library of Congress “B” categorization index so I could arrange my own library according to the LC system. This means that all my books have that telltale label with letters and numerals taped to the spine. When we left Saskatchewan for BC, we carried boxes and boxes of such tomes to the moving van. One friend saw all these books and exclaimed “(Explicative), you’ve got a lot of library books to return Ken.”

I no longer consult the tattered “B” catalogue as I can now research any element of content or description from the comfort of my lower-level man-cave desktop computer. I can now access open-source publications from amongst others, Cambridge University Press in any of ten accessible formats in many cases, free of charge. I can borrow and trade on eBay, Amazon, AbeBooks Russell’s/Victoria and more. I can access almost anything in the world on my e-reader (love and hate Amazon for sure, but the technological advantage for us blind readers is as amazing as it is  convenient). I can access materials in e-pub format from both local and provincial libraries.

Now there is but one final process to explain. While a student at the Royal College of Music in London England in the late seventies, there was no better place to be on Friday afternoons than atop the Victorian college on Prince Consort Road looking at the Royal Albert Hall across the street, in the college library. Following the model of the British museum (and the now defunct British Institute of Recorded Sound also across the street) one enters, quietly, and sits down at a modest table. Instead of consulting card catalogues which were there kept out of sight, one completed a request card and handed it to a stately and rather tall formally dressed gentleman who would investigate and eventually respond to my request.

On special occasion that person was no less than the esteemed Dr. Harold Watkins-Shaw OBE, editor of many editions of the Messiah (he actually had access to Handel’s own performing edition) and other historic choral works. The memory of Parry, Vaughan Williams and Holst echoed through those invisible stacks. It was absolutely, bloody marvellous. Despite its claims, it must be stated that Amazon cannot provide, everything!

Improved accessible technology has benefited me in so very many ways, and I do hope for others also. I am not convinced that billionaires traipsing through space has directly improved my life, the life of the planet or the lives of impoverished peoples and desolated places. If so, I welcome the argument.

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