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?