Thoreau in Cyberspace

This brief essay by Professor Lewis Hyde was published in this month’s edition of The Filter, the Berkman Center newsletter. I like it, especially the ending.

In his keynote to the IS2K7 conference, John Palfrey noted that in front of each Harvard library one now usually finds a sign saying “Harvard ID Holders Only.” What sort of signs, Palfrey was asking, should greet those who approach these libraries not in their physical manifestations but as they appear in cyberspace?

A story about Henry D. Thoreau and the Harvard libraries suggests some answers. Just before his death in 1862, Thoreau told a young man about to enter Harvard that its collection of books was the finest gift the institution had to offer. It was in that library when he was twenty years old that Thoreau read Emerson’s Nature, the book that gave him a first road map into his own adult life; it was there in later years that he discovered in an encyclopedia how to make a pencil superior to any then made in America (and thus reversed the family fortunes); and it was there he regularly made himself huge commonplace books of poems by the English poets.

Such post-graduate research would not have been possible, however, had he not been granted special access to the collections, for even in the mid-nineteenth century the doors were not open to all comers. Students could take books out, of course, but beyond that the only people with borrowing privileges were ordained ministers and local resident alumni. Thoreau fit neither category and thus he wrote a letter to the college president asking that an exception be made. His petition argued, on the one hand, that he wasn’t really a “nonresident” because the railroad had effectively made Concord a part of Cambridge, and, on the other hand, that as a scholar he was a species of minister: “I have chosen letters for my profession, and so am one of the clergy embraced by the spirit at least of [the college’s] rule.”

The letter worked, and thus did Thoreau receive his pass into the commons of scholarship.

In cyberspace, what is equivalent to “Concord” and who are “the clergy”? The answers seem simple: just as the railroad made Concord part of Cambridge, so has the Internet made the world a part of Cambridge. And in this world where we think the “knowledge economy” is soon to be the economy, anyone who knocks at the door of learning should by that act be taken to have ordained themselves into the order.

None of this speaks to the problem of buying books, maintaining the buildings, and keeping the servers running. But such practical matters come late in any transcendentalist narrative. The first chapter speaks of ideals.