A quiet revolution is taking place among university libraries.
It’s a revolution that will speak to the function of libraries in general and, more specifically, to the culture surrounding reading. With Google talking about putting the world’s libraries on line, university libraries, to everyone’s surprise and amazement, have become the battleground upon which the nature of books and reading will be fought.
Here’s why. At Plymouth State University’s Lamson Library, where I teach, approximately 15% of the library’s collection is circulated. Flipped the other way, that number means 85% of the library’s collection sits untouched year after year, collecting dust and taking up space. Those numbers are about on par with other university libraries across the nation. While circulation is stagnant in hard-backed books, the library has never been more active. The University’s Reading and Writing Center is housed in the library, and the planning board for the library has just completed designs for bringing in a coffee shop, similar to Starbuck’s, onto the library’s ground floor. The entire building now is wireless, meaning you can take your laptop into the coffee shop, drink a cup of Joe, and surf the library at UCLA, or the Sorbonne, or Harvard — at least in principle. You can also pop in a DVD and watch a movie, or you can download music from any number of sources, grabbing rap, jazz, or classical as the mood strikes you. And nobody, by the way, is going to worry overmuch if you happen to spill a little of your bagel on a book you’ve borrowed. The former sacredness of library collections, governed by the severe librarians who served as priests, is finally being deflated.
The culture of books, and university life, is changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep pace. To give a small example outside of academia, consider the recent offering by The New Yorker Magazine. For $100, an extraordinarily modest item on a library budget, you can purchase the entire archives of The New Yorker from its inception to the most recent issues. All of The New Yorkers. All of the ads, cartoons, covers, and so on. Now think of the man and woman power it required, not to mention the space, to house the archives of The New Yorker in a typical library. Anyone who has felt the weight of a well meaning aunt’s gift subscription to National Geographic will understand immediately. All of those odd journals university libraries are compelled to have on hand for “accreditation” will soon give way to electronic versions, and they will be accessed, naturally, from the coffee shop.
Older folks — not to mention more stately librarians — are not always pleased by this turn of events. Not long ago I had reason to research back issues of The New York Times. At Lamson we still have the microfilm doohickeys, the one that make you thread the tape in, spin it on a spool, and little by little, after maneuvering, you can find what you are looking for. During the course of my research I discovered Dartmouth College has The New York Times from the Civil War forward on computer. In three key strokes I could usually find what I was searching for at Dartmouth. When I mentioned it to a librarian at Plymouth, she said, “Well, that’s fine and good, but what if the electricity goes out?” I didn’t have the heart to point out that a blackout would also finish work on the microfilm machine. Nor did I suggest we probably wouldn’t be doing research in a darkened library.
What she meant, though she couldn’t articulate it at that moment, is that she has faith in books. She has faith in rows and rows of knowledge compiled carefully, ready to lend a hand if someone requires it. And doubtless she also has affection for the smell and feel of books, the lovely portability and companionable weight of them opened on one’s lap. The proposition that books have become something other, something different, is disturbing to her and many others.
In academia, perhaps more than most places, we are struggling with the nature of books and publishing. When a colleague “goes up” for promotion, she or he must present a portfolio of the work accomplished before the review period. That work is then reviewed by a committee of peers to judge its acceptability and gravitas. That sounds pompous, so let’s call it a job review. But now, with electronic publication available to anyone who wants to take advantage of it, the nature of “a book” has come under scrutiny. Is a blog a book? Is a poem sent to a website a “published” poem? How about if one uses a site like LuLu.com to self-publish a book — is that as intellectually viable as a book brought out by an editor and a publishing company? Are they two sides of the same coin, or is publishing a book with a traditional publisher a more solid credential? If one writes about one’s travel to Singapore on a blog, is it the equivalent of publishing a piece in The Atlantic Monthly? Are we judging the publisher, or the item published?
Younger people, naturally, find all of this equivocating silly. They know where they are going to look for information, and it sure as heck isn’t the library — at least not the library as it currently exists. In a healthy way, perhaps, they don’t make distinctions about information. They use it, then move on. Sometimes that gets them into trouble when they are not discerning enough about the internet source of information, but that’s a relatively small price to pay for the rapidity and ease of availability. Ask a teenager what’s playing at the movies, and she or he will go to the net to find out, not the local paper or phone book. Ask him or her to write something about Hamlet, and they are going to Google Hamlet and get back to you. The quaint trip to the library in the roadster with Betty Sue — and a malt afterward — is doubtless a thing of the long past.
But the rewards for the newer libraries are going to be fabulous. Even now, the typical homeowner with internet access can have all of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, and on and on and on from the comfort of their computer screen. They can have virtual access to all music, all film, all maps, all magazines, all newspapers. What will change, what is already changing, is the architecture of a library. Instead of building with brick and mortar, libraries will build electronic extensions in homes, in hospitals, in airports. Libraries will be with us day and night, always available, always open. We will carry them with us in our briefcases and on our vacations. Library walls will come down, and those rows of books, still lovely, still beautiful, will take on new life.