Thursday, February 28, 2008

Slate Discovers the Ultimate Library Question

Ross Dawson says that libraries will be extinct by 2019, but Slate isn't so sure that it agrees. I'm not so sure that I do, either, and not just because I'd like to have a job in 2019 (though, to be fair, I don't expect it to look much like my job today). Slate's slideshow of newer libraries includes the Seattle Public Library's downtown branch, a place that I sometimes love and sometimes hate. At the very least, though, it's an interesting experiment. And the question of what is a library in the digital age is an interesting one, though so far most commentators seem to be finding new ways of asking the question, rather than proposing answers.

One possible answer came from the students at my university recently. Several of them have campaigned for longer building hours, which surprised a few people--if you can work from anywhere, why come to the library?

Answer: in the library, you can tell people to be quiet--and they will. Our library isn't silent, particularly on the first floor where the group study happens, but there are nooks upstairs where you can work for hours undisturbed by so much as a footstep or a human whisper. And ours is not a large library.

We live in an increasingly noisy world, and a lot of the time we bring it with us: I'll never forget the day back in 1996 when I was hiking on Hurricane Ridge and passed someone plugged into a portable CD player (today, of course, it would be an iPod). That's his prerogative, of course; since it wasn't a boom box I can't disapprove too much.

But there are very few places you can go nowadays where people can be together, yet be quiet. Churches (and other religious houses), libraries, and not much else. It's still acceptable to insist on quiet in the library in our culture, and I worry about eroding that acceptability in the name of being all things to everyone. We shouldn't be all things to everyone. We should be what we are, and what we will be.

So what is a library to be? One possible answer: a quiet, yet communal, place to work.

What else is a library to be?

No comments: