“Leave the Libaries Alone.”


Being of the last generation to need to visit a library while in school in order to get information and to do research, I have a serious soft-spot for libraries. I retain very fine memories of studying Edmund Husserl, Thomistic metaphysics and William James during December 2002 (when I probably no longer needed to actually be in the library) in Bapst Library at Boston College and truly being invigorated as much by the stacks and smells and architecture of the large study hall as I was by the copious amounts of coffee I’d been consuming.  Not to mention that the public nature of the library and the enforced silence was very good for keeping me undistracted.  I took notes in a Space Pen, in hardcover notebooks, using paper books written by and about what I was studying.  I didn’t think that such a method of work would be so seriously endangered only 8 years later.  I can’t decide if physical libraries are a case of holding fast to something we know and love for it’s own sake or if there’s really something about them that can justify us keeping them around longer.  For what it’s worth, my local library just received an expensive and extensive remodeling, in a city that’s so strapped for cash that fire houses close on a rolling basis.

Best-selling author Philip Pullman spoke to a packed meeting on 20 January 2011, called to defend Oxfordshire libraries. He gave this inspirational speech…

“In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public…
Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him…
So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit…

The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs…

That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.” (More.)

There are some interesting comments on Boing Boing, where I found this link, including the suggestion (for better or worse) that libraries get replaced by something else or nothing.

[Image of Morris Library at SIUC, summer 2005, before complete renovations.]