In Snead’s era, a library without books was unthinkable. Now it seems almost inevitable. Like so many other time-honored institutions of intellectual and cultural life—publishing, journalism, and the university, to name a few—the library finds itself on a precipice at the dawn of a digital era. What are libraries for, if not storing and circulating books? With their hearts cut out, how can they survive?
Ours is not the first era to turn its back on libraries. The Roman Empire boasted an informal system of public libraries, stretching from Spain to the Middle East, which declined and disappeared in the early medieval period.
Will the digital age mark another era of decline for libraries? To an observer from an earlier era, unfamiliar with the screens and devices now crowding out printed books, it may look that way at first. On the other hand, even the smallest device with a Web browser now promises access to a reserve of knowledge vast and varied enough to rival that of Alexandria. If the current digital explosion throws off a few sparks, and a few vestigial elements of libraries, like their paper books and their bricks-and-mortar buildings, are consigned to flames, should we be concerned? Isn’t it a net gain?
Libraries have compensated for this shift by redefining their mission around providing access to new technologies.
Instead, librarians have begun to identify a rationale for institutional survival in the ancillary public benefits noted above, in particular the principle of a “third place” focused on learning.
Both maker spaces and Library as Incubator–style art programs engage library patrons to produce their own content. Also in this vein, some wealthier libraries have begun hosting self-publishing and print-on-demand technologies like the Espresso Book Machine. If basic Internet access is no longer anything to write home about, it’s notable that the cutting-edge technologies that libraries can boast of providing on-site access to are used more for creating and less for passive, traditional library activities like reading and watching.
History can repeat itself. Libraries will only survive if the communities they serve want and need them to. It would be a tragedy of historic proportions if, for instance, the public library system that Carnegie endowed and inspired is dismantled in the coming decades, but it’s a real possibility. In the end, it’s up to us—scholars, makers, and artists, seekers of community, access, and safe haven, and above all, readers in the old, human sense of the word—to rise to the level of these monuments we’ve built.
Image Credit : Samantha Marx