On Libraries

Libraries have a problem. An awesome problem.

In the abstract, the purpose of a library is to collect and make information available. The information may be entertaining or practical or neither or both, but in general the role of the library has historically been to protect in disseminate information. In particular, there is a longstanding tradition of public libraries that give away this information for free.

The problem is that information has become cheap. With the rise of the Internet, more and more research in scientific journals, for example, is put online. So the need to house tens of thousands of journals, most of which will rarely if ever be touched, is diminishing. Thanks to sites like Project Gutenberg, and more recently Google Books, the need to carry rights free material in a library is also diminished. With the new non-shitty generation of eReaders like the Kindle and Nook, even the advantage of holding a hardcopy is gone. Moving forward, it’s likely eReader prices (if they follow their current trend) will become either free or extremely cheap for basic versions.

It stands to reason that libraries are going to experience some big changes. I’ve felt conflicted over this. I once talked to a library employee who told me they regularly would toss out old 19th century reference books of things like railroad maps and such. One part of me feels like this is a loss – there’s something inherently charming about older books, and it seems a shame to decide they’re garbage. On the other hand, these are books that just sit and gather dust while more useful information could be occupying its space. The fact that a list of agricultural output from 1830, which is available online, is sitting in that library could mean that there are fewer copies of Dickens or math books. The aesthetics of book geeks are, sadly, not enough to justify the space many of these lovely books occupy.

It’s easy to imagine that, in the future, it will become cheaper to give everyone a Kindle and a stipend than to physically house all these thousands of books. At first blush, this sounds entirely desirable

And yet… if you’re like me, you feel this as a loss. So, let’s consider what libraries do that would not be addressed by having everyone own a Kindle.

First, libraries have become a place where community services are provided. Many libraries teach literacy, educate adults in computer usage, hold storytelling for children, act as community art galleries, act as auditoria for visiting writers, and lots of other stuff we generally consider valuable. They serve lots of real functions beyond just housing and organizing books.

Second, they still offer free access to a lot of books you can’t get. In the United States, copyright extends 70 years beyond the death of the author. So, for example, if I live to see 2050 and I wish to restrict access, my books will not be rights free until 2120. Libraries are a nice cultural institution that allows readers to route around this problem.

Third, they give access to books most people couldn’t afford or which won’t fit on an eReader. For example, large books of art or copies of illuminated Medieval manuscripts.

Fourth, libraries provide a nice work space. They tend to be a quiet place with a lot of seating and free wifi. If you’re an uberdork like me, you know how useful this can be.

Last, by still quite important, libraries provide an inspirational space. A good library doesn’t just surround you with all the great works of history – it has a certain intellectual aesthetic even in its smell and touch. Many will have great paintings or architecture in addition to the books they house. This may seem like a trivial point, but I don’t think it should be forgotten. I myself have overcome writer’s block many times simply by walking around the library and looking at the various titles. Sometimes I will crack an astronomy journal from the 40s just to see how different it was. That sort of browsing and exploring might be hard to recreate online.

That’s a lot of good stuff, and I think there’s a decent chance it’ll get killed by inexorable market forces if libraries don’t adapt.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to propose some ideas I think would help adapt libraries to the modern set of needs while maintaining what is essential about them.

eReaders

Instead of housing shit-tons of books, they should have eReaders and a collection of rare books, as well as books that don’t transmit to eReaders well, such as very large books. Assuming eReaders get so cheap they’re essentially free at some point in the near future, they would basically be like library cards. You sign up, get your special eReader, and you’re good to go. For copyright reasons, and since you’re not paying, I think having strong DRM would be perfectly fine. You could say “We’ve uploaded Moby Dick and The Hunger Games to your reader. The first is yours to keep. The second will self-delete in 2 weeks.” This would allow every library to have a vast book selection, and would simultaneously free up tons of space for works that are rare or not friendly to eReaders.

In addition, you could house all those copyrighted books still. By not needing to carry reference manuals and rights free books, you’d free up a lot of space for people who still want to use hardcopy.

Community Services

Absolutely keep all the community services. The more a library can serve as a community center, the better for that community.

New Community Services

They could also provide new communal services. One of the really great things about a library 50 years ago was that it was a way to pool resources so that everyone could benefit. Nowadays, those resources have become cheap. BUT, there are still things that would provide similar benefits, but which individuals can’t purchase.

For example, what if you provided a community hackerspace at the library? That is, you provide some basic engineering tools, along with a few more expensive ones like 3D printers or CNC machines? Just like people borrow books, they could borrow time on machines. This could be nicely combined with the communal services – local people could teach engineering techniques.

Building on this, you could also provide some enrichment services of a scientific nature. For example, for about a thousand dollars, you can purchase a telescope good enough to see Saturn’s shape on the right night. For a few hundred dollars you can purchase a microscope. For a few thousand dollars, you can get a lot of chemistry equipment. Resources like this would be a great opportunity for precocious kids whose parents can’t afford this kind of equipment, or for curious adults who’ve never considered looking at the stars on a clear night.

I mention these ideas not just because I think they’re neato. I think they play the role libraries were meant to serve – pooling resources to benefit people who want to self educate. It’s nowadays less important to communally pay for books. Books are cheaper and information is close to free. It used to cost thousands to get a nice encyclopedia. Now, you have a superior one for free online. So, why not re-purpose that community money to self-education services that are not yet cheap, like simple scientific and technical equipment.

Maintain Inspiration

Part of why it’d be useful to continue housing older rarer books is that you could keep some of the flavor of a library. I suspect the desire to handle a traditional book is mostly cultural, but the desire to be in a bookish space may be a bit deeper. It seems to me that people tend to appreciate older architecture for example when it comes to library space. A library should be efficient, but not too clinical. By keeping old books and big books and continuing to house art, you can maintain the inspirational aspect of a library while modernizing and adapting it to its new roles.

More Work Space

I’ve lived on a number of campuses at this point, and I’ve noticed something. Older libraries tend to have worse work space. This isn’t universally true, but often is. Additionally, what space there is in old libraries often will have mediocre electrical and wifi access. Older libraries no doubt had to focus on books because that was their primary purpose. If housing books shifts from being primary, it makes sense that space for work should open up and be more amenable to people carrying laptops and tablets.

 

* * *

 

Those are just a few ideas I’ve been mentally kicking around. Whenever new technology comes along, we seem to get these unfortunate factions of those who wish to change nothing and those who think everything has already changed. The essential purpose of the library is to house information, but a good library also carries with it many quiet invisible charms, which should also be preserved.

There is a way in which a library acts as a sort of secular temple – a place to wrap oneself in the grand trappings Shakespeare and Einstein and Voltaire and Hemingway. A good library gives you the right data, but also acquaints you with all its ghosts. The old way of things will no doubt change, and that is no doubt for the best. But let’s not give up the ghosts!

Zach Weinersmith

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12 Responses to On Libraries

  1. Mark says:

    Interesting, I really like the idea of a library as a community center rather than just book storage. Love the idea of pooling resources for community 3D printers and the like!

  2. pku says:

    Interesting. I liked most of the ideas, but the one about ebooks may be impractical. they’re cheap because they’re well suited for individual readers (who store many books but only read one at a time), and the bookstores sell them cheaper because they make money when you buy books through them. For libraries, where you have many simultaneous readers, they might be less cost effective.

  3. John says:

    I also like libraries for many of the reasons mentioned above. However, I still haven’t bought into eReaders for regular usage. I think my biggest problem with them is research. When trying to cross reference multiple works, I often have six or seven books open at once. Unless I have six or seven eReaders (which I don’t), this obviously becomes impractical quickly.

    I find eReaders far more useful (personally) for periodicals, things like the newspaper, political magazines, etc, that I’m reading for pleasure, but I don’t especially need to keep a hardcopy on my shelf forever. They become a rapid waste of paper.

    Plus, the bibliophile in me likes something about a physical book. It’s a hard copy. It won’t go away. I can’t accidentally delete it. The batteries on it won’t die, I can read it just as well in sunlight as in artificial light, making notes in the margins is quick, easy, and permanent. If I drop it on concrete, it doesn’t shatter and break. I’ll probably be buying physical books as long as they’re being printed, personally.

    All that said, I do agree that libraries need to adapt. I think every library should have a substantial (cutting edge) computer lab, with internet access, journal subscriptions, printers, and various word processing and publishing software available. The future of all reference material is digital, given the greater ease of search and storage for large volumes of data. I definitely foresee a library of the future with as many computers as books. If libraries are willing to adapt that is.

  4. Gordon says:

    I do think libraries could use an update to the times to be more practical to the community. I’m not sure what it would take to catalyze such a change though. I know I would personally love having telescopes available at a local library, but I’m not so sure about a chemistry set. There are only so many ways to injure yourself or others with a telescope.

  5. Colin says:

    Good ideas. I’m still on the fence about libraries giving away eReaders, though. I think it would be good if you could set up a way to have libraries rent out ebooks to people who already own them, either by physically going to the library to upload them or by having some online service.

    Additionally, more libraries could add seed lending libraries. The idea is that you “borrow” some seeds, grow them out, and “return” by donating some new seeds. A great way to encourage growing local, locally-adapted produce and ornamentals; provide information for newcomers; preserve genetic stock; promote community; enourage urban farming/gardening; and so forth.

  6. Jessica says:

    I think you make a lot of great points about libraries, but dont forget about the librarians themselves. Sifting and searching through the ever increasing mountains of information is difficult for most people, especially when you’re trying to do research. Google doesnt come close to a good librarian when it comes to finding new sources of information on a topic.

    • ZachWeiner says:

      Very good point. I suppose I was lumping them in with the community services and should have been more explicit.

  7. R. Allen Snider says:

    One quick idea related to but one part of your thoughts:
    In order to maintain the serendipity and wonderment of physically exploring a library — which I, like you, think is pretty essential to the whole experience — I wonder if there would be a way to tag spaces in the library using near-field wireless or something. While handling a hypothetically library-sponsored eReader one could then virtually wander the stacks, the traces of the now-digitized books’ organization lingering in the air around the related physical texts that remain.

  8. david says:

    Regarding hackerspaces and 3D printers, I think he is refering to this: https://www.npr.org/2011/12/10/143401182/libraries-make-room-for-high-tech-hackerspaces

  9. Alex Pope says:

    Another thing that libraries show is how much a community values books. The fact that it’s there is a testament to that value, but they also teach that books are to be cared for and respected, but enjoyed, even voraciousally. So, yes, even as they are whisked into the future, that focus on the value of books and on reading should remain at the core of their being.

  10. The “community hackerspaces” to which you refer are places where coworking takes place:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coworking

    http://coworking.com/

    These spaces already exist, but to integrate it with the public library is an incredible idea. Most every town has a library, but only big metro areas and seeming yuppie havens tend to have coworking spaces.

  11. Nope says:

    I just hope the libraries of the future won’t be plagued by the same flaws of Wikipedia (deletionism, bureaucracy, abuse of power), because an important share of our current culture is falling into oblivion simply because there is no place to keep it : online => there is too much informations and no perennial platform, offline => there is no place for it, because no newspaper or famous author talked about it.

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