Libraries of Context

There is a figure in English history who was known as a unique intellectual resource – not from his own words, but from the words he collected. Sir Robert Bruce Cotton amassed a library with such an extensive collection, from the sole surviving source of Beowulf to the Magna Carta, that writers flocked to study and borrow its contents. In A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, Nicholas Basbanes explores the influence of Cotton's library on his contemporaries:

Many of the writers who used his library acknowledged their debt to him in print, including Richard Knolles, a historian and author of The Generall Historie of the Turkes, and Thomas Milles, in Catalogue of Honour. With Cotton's assistance, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote his Historie of the World while confined to the Tower on charges of treason; Sir Francis Bacon consulted Cotton while working on The History of Henry VII.

Even Shakespeare is rumored to have used Cotton's library. In short, as Basbanes declares,

Cotton's library was recognized as the most important source of factual information in the realm, an archive that was valued by his friends and feared by his enemies.

We do not use other people's libraries in the same way as writers used Cotton's. We cannot claim to be the kind of source of factual information that Cotton was. Not anymore.

So where does that leave us? I am struck by a comment Jon Udell once made – context is a service that we provide to others. Perhaps that is the form our libraries take on the web. Not of 10th century manuscripts but of contexts of thought. So a blog I consistently read is from an individual's unique context – how she is, what she is thinking, what she is reading, and who she is interacting with. That context then sits aside other contexts. Soon enough I have amassed a library of context. And when I blog, the many contexts of others I have been reflecting on shows through in the context I share.

It is at once an individual library and a public library. And perhaps that is what the web is in a nutshell.