Is the Library Relevant?

“A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of an event or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them”

– Mark Twain

In a sidebar of the August Issue of Wired, the magazine poses the following question to three librarians: “Will the internet put public libraries out of business?” Michael Gorman, president elect of the American Library Association believes that computer access will always draw people into the library, and “once they’re inside… they end up checking out books.” Even though our existing punctuation leaves little room for interpretation, there seems to be an air of pessimism in his response. Blogger/Librarian Jessamyn West is a little more overt. “The people who can afford to buy computers and internet service often stay home to read and do their research, which means that libraries are increasingly becoming places where poor people go to use public services.” On a recent morning, here in New Orleans, a friend of mine was needed to get some information from the main library. He was a little early, and just decided to wait for the library to open. Over 20 homeless people had the exact same idea. This isn’t just happening in New Orleans. Libraries have always been a popular refuge, but problems begin to arise as “people who can afford to buy computers,” stop going to the library, and it becomes only a refuge. Ms. West continues to point out that as this trend increases, people will become more reluctant to fund a facility that, to them, has outlived its usefulness. So what is to become of the “trustiest monument?”

This article reminded me of of MVRDV’s proposal for the Libraries 2040 Exhibition, which assumed that by the year 2040, the traditional public library will cease to exist. MVDRV proposal was not merely a re-imaging of the library building, it was a proposition to re-define the information network of an entire province. Everything that we currently think of as a typical library function (ie book and media collection, computer access) would be housed in a sublime “meta-building,” whose entire archive would be digitized. Smaller, yet more exclusive collections will be incorporated into modern meeting places such as cafes, schools, waiting rooms and even gas stations. These remote locations will be connected to the central library network – which would, of course, also be accessible from personal computers. MVRDV envision a library that infiltrates the fabric of our social environment, becoming more accessible than ever, yet also much less important as a civic space.

With Media outlets and university libraries digitizing their archives, the idea of a fully virtual information resource is well within the realm of possibility. If libraries are going to retain their relevance, they’re going to have to develop as a social space, offering programs, services, and events that will lure people away from their monitors and the sanctity of their homes. The days of getting “shushed” are at an end.

In The Library of Babel, Borges describes an infinite Library – the very makeup of the Universe – that contains and orders all things known and unknown, wise and nonsensical. The infinite nature of their surroundings drive the curators into a self-destructive despair. His Distopic library parallels the potential of the internet – an infinitely vast collection of knowledge surpassed only by the amount useless gibberish and meaningless drivel. (re: blogs) If we lose the social and civic nature of our information resources, we too may get lost in our own infinite resources.

4 Replies to “Is the Library Relevant?”

  1. I gotta agree with you there, Jimmy Jame. Visitors to the main branch of the Boston Public Library today included myself, 50 or more homeless individuals, and a surprising amount of tourists interesting in seeing the great architecture of the old McKim building (and the shitty architecture of Philip Johnson in the new box).

    I go there often. The only other people who seem to enjoy going there are Asian teenagers, to read fiction, I think, and Asian twenty-somethings, who go there for research.

    It’s useless, really.

  2. i think all this talk of the digital world eclipsing the physical world is a load complete and utter bullshit that intellectual types who sit in front of their computers with nothing better to do have been tireslessly regurgitating for the past decade. People have been prophesizing the immenent arrival of the paperless studio, the downfall of the newspaper, the end of public libraries in this case. When built and managed properly (which admitedly, few are, due to a lack of involvement, funding, etc), libraries are places of congregation, support, community, learning and knowledge. As the general population continues to ebrace technology at an increasingly feverish pace, libraries will learn to integrate and adapt and find a way to become relevant again. hopefully.

  3. wait…was the first part of that a dis?

    anyway…People have indeed been prophesing the downfall of paper media for years, but there are now facts to back them up. subscriptions to newspapers and magazines are down. Media companies are learning that they have to embrace new media if they want to stay alive, stay current (Check out what the Lawrence Journal-World is doing).

    Libraries are having similar problems, and I think that even though they too will have to evolve, they don’t have as much to worry about. Audio books and E-books are great for some texts and some occasions, but i sincerely doubt we’ll ever evolve beyond the desire to curl up and read a good book. Research and information will undoubtedly become increasingly accessed from the private domain – it’s already happening – but to me, libraries have always been about finding stories and a getting lost …literally and figuratively.

  4. no, that wasnt a diss, but then after I posted it, I realized it sounded like a diss, but hey, theres no dissing lifewithoutbuildings.net. its the shit. next to curbed.com

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