Friday, February 29, 2008

Borrowed Time?

From Time
All things are corrupted and decay in time … all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.
—Richard de Bury, Philobiblon
Time—an appropriate topic for today.

There is a slide-show essay on the Slate site called “Borrowed Time: How Do You Build a Public Library in the Age of Google?” The essay ends with this:
Ross Dawson, a business consultant who tracks different customs, devices, and institutions on what he calls an Extinction Timeline, predicts that libraries will disappear in 2019. He's probably right as far as the function of the library as a civic monument, or as a public repository for books, is concerned. On the other hand, in its mutating role as urban hangout, meeting place, and arbiter of information, the public library seems far from spent. This has less to do with the digital world—or the digital word—than with the age-old need for human contact.

After the new Central Library of the Seattle Public Library opened a few years ago, an interesting article, “Future Bound: The Greatly Exaggerated Demise of an American Institution,” appeared in the journal Books & Culture. The article discussed the building—one reviewer claimed it to be “the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating”—and considered the role of libraries “in the age of and Google.” (The text of the article is available from the author’s website:

To develop some of the points made in the article, I wrote a letter the editor of Books & Culture (the published letter is available here.) My own first visit to the Central Library had prompted me to consider not only the future of libraries but also, more fundamentally, their core functions.

At the advent of the modern library profession, in the inaugural issue of the Library Journal, Melvil Dewey wrote that the modern librarian
must see that his library contains, as far as possible, the best books on the best subjects, regarding carefully the wants of his special community. Then, having the best books, he must create among his people, his pupils, a desire to read these books.
Dewey thought that librarians should be “positive, aggressive characters, standing in the front rank of the educators of their communities, side by side with the preachers and the teachers.” He thought of public libraries as the third “great engine” of education, which, along with churches and schools, provided people with resources to improve their lives. As places, Dewey claimed that libraries figured so prominently in ordinary towns that one asked not whether there was a library but rather where the library was, “as we might ask where is your school-house, or your post-office, or your church?”

Through their collections (of various media), staffs, and buildings, public libraries still function, as well as they can, to meet the educational needs of diverse populations. (The language of “entertainment needs” also has crept into library mission statements, which creates competition for resources.) 

(The Timeline referenced above, by the way, predicts that Goggle will be extinct by 2049. After that, death. Nothing is said about taxes.)

Link to “Borrowed Time”:
Image: Hebrew Clock of the Old Jewish Town Hall in Josefov, Prague.