Culture / History of the Media / Society

Libraries: their hearts will go on…

From the invention of writing to the digital age, libraries have continued to grow and maintain their importance. Yet the role of libraries has evolved over time. Libraries started as places where privileged men could access cultural knowledge; today they are open to everyone. The creation of the codex during the third century A.D. and the invention of printing during the fifteenth century contributed to the rise of libraries. More recently, computer technology has enabled libraries to organize their collections and make them more accessible. But by allowing free access to information from all over the world, by digitalizing books and by connecting people worldwide, technology could also be the end of libraries. Information no longers ‘belong’ to libraries, but is available online instead. So how come the library institution is still important in the digital age? How does it manage to ‘survive’ the technological threat?

For the sake of this article, we shall focus on examples from the United States, where the history and future of libraries has interested a number of historians, including Robert Darnton. He is the current director of Havard University Library. He is also a trustee of the New York Public Library, where he did not support a recent renovation project. This plan aimed to turn part of the Fifth Avenue and 42th Street building into a lending library. Darnton explained his arguments against the renovation in an article he wrote in 2012 for the New York Review of Books:

“Few buildings in America resonate in the collective imagination as powerfully as the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42th Street. The marble palace behind the stone lions is seen by many as the soul of the city. (…) Tamper with that building and you risk offending some powerful sensitivities.”1

Although Darnton’s main argument deals with the financial aspect of the renovation project, he chose to start his Defence of the New York Public Library by a glorifying description of the building’s entrance. The “marble palace behind the stone lions” is meant to evoke a feeling of respect from New Yorkers and the rest of America. Destroying it, or even modifying it, would be like killing a part of America’s cultural heritage, just as the burning of the Library of Alexandria symbolized the destruction of cultural knowledge. Darnton’s description of the entrance provides a reminder of the importance of libraries in the United States: the institution will live on as long as its historic buildings are protected.

In most developed countries, not only in the United States, new libraries are being built with very modern designs. However, the most amazing and beautiful libraries are and always will be the oldest ones, especially because they are deeply connected to their countries’ histories. With about 1.6 million readers and visitors a year, the very attractive Library of Congress in Washington D.C. serves as a bright example for the United States.2 ‘Library Science List’, an online community of librarians from around the world, lists the Library of Congress as first among the twenty-five most famous libraries of the world. It is also the largest library known, with more than 32 million books, twice as many manuscripts and countless unique historical documents.3 This is one building that should never be altered, not even for renovation and not even because of the new technologies’ overwhelming presence.

You can visit the modern  Library of Alexandria in Egypt and on http://www.alexandria.lib.va.us/client/en_US/home

You can visit the modern Library of Alexandria in Egypt and on http://www.alexandria.lib.va.us/client/en_US/home

But what about the buildings that do not have a long history, or very rare documents, or international visitors? Are they more threatened by new technologies than ‘important’ libraries? Only time will tell, but some authors already have made predictions. Susan R. Barber wrote a short position article for the Library Mosaics Journal in 2004.4 She clearly explains how libraries will remain important for three simple reasons. First, only libraries can provide users real, reliable, accurate information whereas anybody can publish what she calls “simply put, junk” on the Internet, without checking the facts. Second, libraries have deep social, cultural and historical impacts. Some populations have to fight to keep their institutions on the map. Barber gives Iraq as an example, because people there risk their lives in order to protect books and information. By contrast, in America, libraries and their content are undervalued and taken for granted. The third, and probably the most important argument developed by Barber, is that “[a library] just may be the place that provides you with just what you are looking for… No matter what that may be.” A similar idea can be found in the definition of “library” proposed by an anonymous contributor to the online Urban Dictionary:

“An awesome place that is underrated in today’s society. Think about it – where else can you chill in an air-conditioned place, that’s quiet, where you can read a cool mag or surf the net, where you can take a nap, check out movies, meet some friends for a game of chess or cards, read about whatever you like, get free bookmarks, talk to some fine librarians, walk around aimlessly, find out how glow-in-the-dark works….. and all for free!”5

Both Susan R. Barber in her article and the Urban Dictionary definition written by internet users stress the essential social aspect of libraries. This is once again something that new technologies are not able to fully replace.

The social aspect and ‘heritage’ status of libraries are reasons why we can be optimistic for the future of the institution. E-books, online newspapers, journals, and so on may seem like competitors to print; but they are in fact allies. In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert Darnton lists “5 myths about the Information Age”:

Free e-books have been in US libraries from 1998 (image: https://aytm.com/blog/daily-survey-results/e-book-rentals-survey/)

Free e-books have been in US libraries from 1998 (image: https://aytm.com/blog/daily-survey-results/e-book-rentals-survey/)

  1. “The book is dead.” Wrong: More books are produced in print each year than in the previous year.
  2. “We have entered the information age.” (…) Every age is an age of information, each according to the media available at the time.
  3. “All information is now available online.” The absurdity of this claim is obvious to anyone who has ever done research in archives.
  4. “Libraries are obsolete.” The libraries (…) are fulfilling new functions. While continuing to provide books in the future, they will function as nerve centers for communicating digitized information.
  5. “The future is digital.” (…) Research in the relatively new discipline of book history has demonstrated that new modes of communication do not displace old ones (…) Radio did not destroy the newspaper; the Internet did not make TV extinct. That is what we are experiencing in this crucial phase of transition to a dominantly digital ecology.6

In this short list of myths, Darnton demonstrates that opinions about the future of libraries are preconceived and unfounded. As it put it, new technology “is reinforcing old modes of communication rather than undermining them.”

Pessimistic opinions on the future of libraries are numerous. Some of these opinions say that, in order to survive in the digital age, libraries should change their organizations and find better ways to manage their inventions.7 Fortunately, optimist opinions are numerous as well. Fred Lerner writes in The Story of Libraries that “the continuing advances of technology will increase the flexibility of access to recorded information. (…) It will also increase the importance of such traditional library functions as cataloging and reader guidance.”8 New technologies offer new possibilities to libraries, but also to their users: people in libraries are more and more independent. This allows them to do their personal or academic researches by themselves, to educate themselves and improve their literacy. Another kind of new possibility is offered to the Fayetteville Library users in upstate New York. It was the first American library to set up a space in its building for a 3D printer, a laser cutter, and other tools for personal creation. As the job market went bad around 2008 and the Fayetteville Library got busier with visitors looking for career help and orientation, it had to “fulfil [its] mission in society (…) far beyond books.”9 Therefore, this library became a place for invention and discovery for its users. Possibilities in libraries are developing for the best.

From the invention of writing to the digital age, libraries have evolved in step with new media and new needs of the public. Their future seems to be more than assured thanks to the importance and nobility of their role in modern society, and thanks to the social experiences their offer. Libraries remain a major institution today through the services they provide.

 

[1] Robert Darnton, “In Defense of the New York Public Library,” New York Review of Books, volume 59, issue 10 (2012): 12-14

[2] “Frequently Asked Questions” Library of Congress Website http://www.loc.gov/about/frequently-asked-questions/(last accessed 16th November 2014)

[3] “25 Most Famous Libraries Of The World” Library Science List http://librarysciencelist.com/25-most-famous-libraries-of-the-world/ (last accessed 22th October 2014)

[4] Susan R Barber, “Why Do We Need Libraries?,” Library Mosaics, volume 15, issue 6 (nov-dec 2004): 15

[5] “Library” Urban Dictionary http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=library (last accessed 22th October 2014)

[6] Robert Darnton, “5 Myths of the Information Age’,” Chronicles of Higher Education, volume 57, issue 33 (2011): B9-B10

[7] Anne Goulding. Public Libraries in the 21st Century Defining Services and Debating the Future. (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Pub., 2006), page 341.

[8] Lerner, Fred. Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age. 2.nd ed. (London: Continuum, 2009), page 200.

[9] Aviva Rutkin, “Make Some Noise,” New Scientist, volume 223, issue 2978 (2014): 1

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