Quaint vs. Libraries

This Slashdot post asks the same question a lot of people do: “can libraries be saved from the internet?”

Slate has an interesting photo essay exploring the question of how to build a public library in the age of Google, Wikipedia, and Kindle. The grand old reading rooms and stacks of past civic monuments are giving way to a new library-as-urban-hangout concept, as evidenced by Seattle’s Starbucks-meets-mega-bookstore central library and Salt Lake City’s shop-lined education mall. Without some dramatic changes, The Extinction Timeline predicts libraries will R.I.P. in 2019.

The premise is that libraries are physical spaces used to house books, and that as books decline in importance in our libraries the buildings must take on some new, third place role. That much would be true, if libraries were no more than buildings full of books.

Libraries in early America had no buildings, just a community group that shared books and sometimes shelved them in their local tavern. Books and other forms of knowledge were shared because there was little to be gained by hoarding them, and much to learn from in discussions about them. In addition to offering important social opportunities, these early libraries were founded on the notion that lifelong education strengthened the community; that libraries strengthened the republic.

Carnegie wasn’t the only robber baron who sought wash his name in this grand notion, and the 19th and 20th centuries saw tremendous growth of physical architecture for libraries. But libraries are greater than that. Before they became buildings, libraries were the means by which a community or culture identified, preserved, and disseminated knowledge. Libraries, in short, were public information architecture. Google, Wikipedia, and the Kindle haven’t displaced the need libraries serve, rather, they highlight it. Wikipedians are perhaps the librarians of the future, shushing noisy patrons, cleaning up messes, and trying to ferret out truth amidst conflict.

The internet is indeed challenging our old notions of libraries, but what’s racing towards obsolescence, the library or our quaint notion of it?

3 thoughts on “Quaint vs. Libraries

  1. Speaking as one on the payroll of a, ahem, robber baron library I wholly concur with your sentiments. While the idea of library as physical place may be changing, the service librarians provide remains the same as it has always been: getting useful information into the hands of people who don’t have it and need it. Our library gets much more traffic on our various Web sites than it does in our reading room – although that might change if we implemented some sort of tavern service at the library. Hmmm. Care for a bloody mary with that Dun & Bradstreet list?

  2. Just having seen a flier that an elementary school may close due to California’s dramatic budget shortfalls and reading of this blog post prompted this rambling what-if.

    What if what we are seeing is a trend where buildings as physical spaces for schools and libraries will be lost due to tight budgets. However, schools and libraries will still be needed, but more and more of its services will be provided online, making greater use of collaborative 2.0 technologies. Reverting back to days of old, such services will be housed in (where else?) the homes of its workers.

    As more and more professionals clamor for flexible time and the ability to work from home, they may just get what they want. That is, until the trend sways back and users clamor for face to face interaction, thus prompting federal funding for physical spaces for schools and libraries.

    2019 may mark the end of libraries as we know it, but what might 2069 bring?

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