It is often suggested that we now have access to all the world’s knowledge through the internet. This is said or implied so frequently that I find myself seeing Google not as a supplement to my once-favoured libraries, but as an alternative to them. The information and wisdom that previously would have been found within books is now available at the click of a mouse.
A happy afternoon of serendipitous discoveries in the British Library reminded me why this view is wrong. This huge institution receives a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom: about 184,000 each year. The contents of these books largely do not exist on the internet. A Google search will not reveal the full information they contain. So if you think we can rely on finding everything we need online, then you will miss most of the conversations between author and reader that are happening every day.
You might argue that this does not matter, because the most important ideas will be brought out of those books and discussed elsewhere too: in newspapers, magazines, blogs, television and radio. You could find evidence of all this on the internet, and therefore do not need to worry about missing the books themselves. Surely this is enough for the lay person.
I disagree, because it is not just the current conversation that you would be missing. The British Library’s total stock comprises more than 25 million books. The further back in time a book was published, the less you are to find its contents on the web — even with the laudable efforts being made to digitise the most venerable of our ancient tomes. These books, accessible in libraries but not via Google, let you see the world from long-forgotten perspectives. They can lift you above the inward-looking concerns of the 21st century, and let you see our modern life again, as if from the outside.
This post is partly an excuse to share an example which I think neatly illustrates my point. In today’s 180-character political arguments, we tend to regard patriotism as the hobby of jingoistic reactionaries who wish we could return to a fantasy past of red phone boxes, grammar schools and imperial measures. But during my afternoon in the British Library I happened upon a speech that is more helpful. It shows how we might channel patriotism and tradition to help us flourish in changing circumstances, without getting stuck in the ways of the past. It is a view that we do not tend to hear in our daily peregrinations across digital and social media. Nor is it a speech that you could have found online; at least I could not find it even by entering direct quotes into Google, or by searching with related terms or exact details. Yet it is hugely relevant for us now, as we rethink how Britain should re-form itself as an independent nation after Brexit.
By typing the speech into this blog post, I am immortalising it for our internet age. In future, a lucky browser could find these words. But I also hope that this entry will inspire you to wonder what else might be found in those dusty old books beyond the internet.
Extract from a speech by Lord Rosebery to the Seaforth Highlanders, circa 1931*:
A great past is the inspiration of the present. Memories are among man’s finest possessions. A splendid achievement never dies. It lives on in the memory of one generation after another, and it fructifies in the hearts of men, becoming the parent of other fine deeds.
A boy goes to school and a man joins a regiment, and at once they are faced with the obligation to carry on the traditions. To allow today to be unworthy of yesterday is shameful. If their admiration is stirred by recalling what has been done, their ambition is also roused to be worthy to be counted among the giants of the past. It is for them to hand along the record to the next comer unsullied, and maybe with added lustre.
Tradition is the basis of patriotism. Great Britain is no mere island on the west coast of Europe. It is not only the place where we ourselves happen to live. It was the birthplace of mighty heroes, great poets, splendid statesmen, who made England and the English famous in the world. It is for us to maintain what our forefathers have won. It is for us to be jealous for their and our country’s good name.
But traditions may be a hindrance as well as an inspiration. It is the spirit that matters. Rigid adherence to the letter means disaster. Each generation must discover its own methods. The lives of those who have gone before teach us that success depends on thoroughness, industry, enterprise, experiment.
These all remain necessary. But if we stand content with the out-of-date machinery of life, urging as a plea that it was ‘good enough for our fathers’, we are making failure certain and are prostituting their memory, because we are using tradition to cloak lack of courage, lack of initiative, lack of persistence! When the next naval battle is fought, if it ever be fought, it will be splendid to recall the spirit of Nelson and Nelson’s men, but it would be absurd to fight it in Nelson’s ships.
* Quoted in Lewis C. Rudd, 1935: The Duke of York’s Royal Military School: Its History, Aims and Associations. This Lord Rosebery was Harry Primrose, 6th Earl of Rosebery (lived 1882-1974) – son of Archibald Primrose, the 5th earl and Liberal Prime Minister from 1894-1895. He served in WW1 as a Grenadier Guards officer, played as a professional cricketer, represented Edinburghshire as a Liberal MP, and served as Secretary of State for Scotland.