The Future of Libraries

August 8, 2012

The Republic perceives the inevitable winds and encourages us to adjust our sails in “The Bookless Library.” No matter how much some of us would like to believe otherwise, the traditional library with its stacks upon stacks of wood pulp tomes is on its way out. In a lengthy article that is worth a read, journalist David A. Bell suggests we proactively manage the shift in a way that will best benefit society.

This paragraph was particularly poignant to me:

“Specialized scholars will always have reasons to consult the original paper copies of books. Marginalia, watermarks, paper quality, binding, and many other features of the physical book that digitization cannot always capture offer valuable clues about how the books were produced, circulated, and read, how they created meaning. But this sort of research . . . involves a small number of readers. Far more readers, of course, appreciate physical books for their aesthetic qualities: the feel of the paper, the crisp look of print on the page, the elegant binding, the pleasant heft of the volume in the hand, the sense of history embedded in a venerable edition that has gone through many owners. But this sort of pleasure, real and meaningful as it is, is harder to justify financially, as resources grow increasingly scarce.”

Sigh. Yes, it will only get harder for libraries to justify buying and housing physical books when the electronic versions are widely available. But, as Bell notes, libraries are more than shelves of books. They are, as he puts it, “grand temples of learning,” and without them, much study, communication, and inspiration will fall by the wayside. What, then, should we do?

Bell’s advice hinges on revisiting the original purposes of the library: public outreach and public instruction, both of which were, at the time, best met by providing access to the printed word. Libraries, he says, should adjust by expanding on efforts many are already making, like hosting seminars, book clubs, art and film exhibits, and study centers. That way, even as their stacks dwindle, libraries can remain relevant and continue to serve their communities.

Cynthia Murrell, August 8, 2012

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