Yet in Web culture, the fact that the Net can also move images overshadows the fact that it often does so extremely ponderously. The librarian of the Online Literature Library (http://www.literature.org) feels obliged to go on the defensive. "In this day and age of pretty multi-media and whiz-bang effects you may find this site somewhat sedate and quiet, but that's just how libraries are," he observes, and provides links to click "if you are looking for pretty sites to be loud in".
Actually, sedate and quiet libraries seem to be out of fashion these days, and a few minutes at home with the mouse is certainly a lot more peaceful than trying to browse the shelves of my local library while the under-fives are being read stories in the children's section. On the other hand, it's a pleasant stroll on a spring morning, and better exercise than clicking the mouse. But how do the two resources compare for information retrieval?
As well as the Online Literature Library, I visited On-line Books at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/Web/books.html. This offers the texts of 1500 books, along with a string of links to other sites, from the Victorian Women Writers Project in Indiana to the CURIA Irish Manuscript Project in Cork.
Both the Literature Library and On-line Books are flying the blue ribbon of protest against the Decency Amendment to the US Telecommunications Bill. The Literature page opens with a warning that the site contains works which would contravene this provision, such as Huckleberry Finn. On-line Books offers a special exhibit devoted to books that have attracted the attentions of censors at various times and places, "from Ulysses to Little Red Riding Hood". I downloaded a copy of Can Such Things Be?, a collection of horror stories by Ambrose Bierce. In 1918 it was among the "disturbing" books ordered out of military camp libraries by the US War Department, "a directive which was taken to apply to the homefront as well".
Retrieving it took about 15 minutes, if I gloss over the usual technical difficulties and a detour to pick up a couple of Shelley poems. I spent another half-hour acquiring Darwin's Origin of Species, chapter by chapter. It took 20 minutes to call at the terrestrial library and find that the Bierce is not held in the borough's stock, while Origin of Species could take a week to arrive if ordered from a different branch. On the other hand, I could have come away with up to ten titles from the 30,000 books the branch has available for loan.
Browsing the fiction shelves is more agreeable than downloading virtual texts. The reverse is true for non-fiction, however, since Westminster City Libraries have overlaid the decimal classification system with a vacuous new scheme that discards "Science" in favour of something called "Body and Mind". I feel Darwin is safer on my hard disk.
Will I read him there, though? Perhaps not very much. The main reason for keeping a text in electronic memory is ease of reference. Yet I found myself hooked as I read the Bierce while waiting for it to download, and stayed reading off-line for a couple of hours afterwards. These are tales of mysterious apparitions and presences, by an author who himself vanished from the face of the earth. Reading them in an immaterial text, summoned instantly from another continent, is entirely apt.