What Is the Future of Libraries?

I used two libraries in the same day.

One was a seminary library. When I arrived, the door was locked and the lights were off. I meandered down a hallway and found someone in an office who sheepishly let me in and turned on the lights. The lights illumined the rows and rows of books. When I inhaled, I could smell that smell that any bibliophile knows and loves—the smell of books.

The other library didn’t have any fragrance at all. In fact, I didn’t actually visit it. Instead, I used it by listening to an audio book on my iPhone, available through Hoopla, a service provided by my local library.

These two library experiences primed my interest in James Gleick’s review of BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey. As you might guess, the question that Palfrey addresses is: in the era of technocracy, what is the value and future of libraries?

We might tend to process this question in terms of the controversies over the print vs. digital reading experience. I’ll freely admit that I’m a die-hard fan of paper-and-ink books. I tend to retain information better if I’m able to scrawl lines underneath key concepts in a book, stress the spine of a paperback at a particularly important chapter, bend the corners of the pages down, or (especially) jot down my musings in the margins. If anyone thinks I’m disrespecting a book by handling it this way, let me assure you: good books deserve to be digested. And when you digest something, you tend to change it. So, the competition between print and digital reading does factor into the future of libraries.

But the future of libraries involves much more than that. It involves the questions of who will steward the collections, of how people will sift through the mediocre to find the truly great books, and of how to democratize knowledge without defunding authors and publishers (among many other issues).

I agree with the answer that Palfrey gives. He argues that, although libraries face some difficult paradoxes in our digital age, they are here to stay, since “spaces where people can come to study, read, and think are essential for communities and individuals to thrive. We already have too few such open, public spaces.”

That means that the reading/learning experience will never be completely digitized: “A transition to the digital can’t mean shrugging off the worldly embodiments of knowledge, delicate manuscripts and fading photographs and old-fashioned books of paper and glue. To treat those as quaint objects of nostalgia is the technocrats’ folly.”

So are libraries going away? No, not while people continue to value social spaces for study and perusal. As Gleick puts it, “People continue to gather in libraries, with or without their laptops and pocket devices. They sit at the old wooden tables and consult real documents and cherish the quiet aura of the books that surround them.”







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