A library is not the books: An ethical obstacle to the digital library

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that libraries do not inevitably arise from the aggregation of information, and to apply this result to critique the meaningfulness of the idea of a “digital library.” Three independent arguments demonstrate that libraries are more than the sum of the books that they contain: first, the logical argument, which analyses the internal consistency of claims for the superiority of electronic formats; second, the semantic argument, which examines ordinary language to isolate the core requirements of what it means to be a “library”; and third, the ethical argument, which identifies the source of the unique phenomenological experience of encounter with the library. It is found that the three arguments each refute the view that “library” is the collective noun for “book,” and argue instead that it is an emergent concept that offers to its community a reflection of the local cultural knowledge through the ordinary selection and organization practices that distinguish libraries from other book accumulations. Against that understanding the idea of a comprehensive and universal digital library fails on the essential criteria of selectivity and organization. While such products can be powerfully useful, they offer something distinct from libraries. When we lose sight of this difference we risk losing the inherent and irreducible values embodied by libraries. The paper's arguments provide a reasoned infrastructure to several beliefs that are both common and unexamined.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)93-106
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 11 2012


  • Category
  • Collection
  • Definition
  • Digital
  • Digital technology
  • Intentionality
  • Libraries
  • Numinous
  • Organization
  • Phenomenology
  • Selectivity
  • Semantics
  • e-books

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Computer Networks and Communications


Dive into the research topics of 'A library is not the books: An ethical obstacle to the digital library'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this