Bookless Libraries Should Provide Cultural “Third Space”

David A. Bell, writing in The New Republic, has this to say regarding the future of libraries:

 

IF LIBRARIES ARE to survive, and thereby preserve their expertise, their communal functions, their specialized collections, and the access they provide to physical books, they must find new roles to play. The critics of the NYPL Central Library Plan claim that it has put the library’s standing as a premier research institution in jeopardy, but they finally fail to acknowledge that the very nature of premier research institutions—and all other libraries—is changing in radical and inexorable ways. Clinging to an outdated vision of libraries is in fact the best recipe for making them look hopelessly obsolescent to the men and women who control their budgets, thereby ensuring that the nightmare scenario that I have laid out actually comes to pass.

In imagining new roles, it is important to think about the way that the digital revolution has already changed the world of learning as a whole—above all, in its democratizing effects. To be sure, the world of learning has always had its democratic institutions, with the NYPL itself among the greatest. Anyone can walk in off the street into the Schwarzman Building, get a reader’s card, and have immediate access to one of the greatest troves of learning ever assembled. And yet, in practice, most people have not had the resources, physical or intellectual, to make use of such a wonderful resource. Doing so required time that working adults could not easily spare. And in most cases it also required a high level of education. For every autodidact who found in its collections the keys to a new universe, many other well intentioned readers, less motivated or less skilled, ended up turning away in confusion.

Today interested readers, or aspiring amateur scholars, have far more help available, most of it at their Internet-enabled fingertips. There are full undergraduate courses online, complete with lectures, free from the likes of Harvard and MIT. There are excellent and accessible lecture courses geared explicitly to the general public from sources such as The Teaching Company, for a low cost or for free from a public library. There are half a dozen allegedly “educational” television networks, even if ones such as The History Channel have increasingly shifted to routine entertainment programming. And of course there are an infinity of websites offering introductions to every subject under the sun. Caveat lector, yes—but what an embarrassment of riches.

 

I took the title for this post from librarian Kate Adler, who pointed out that Bell’s argument rests on the idea that even if somehow all books disappear as physical objects, there would still be a need for a meeting space of the type that only libraries provide. I think the entire thing is worth reading and considering.

Anyway, I’m heading to Vermont for two weeks, where the internet is rather more spotty than in NYC. As a result, no posts next week apart from Twitter and Facebook tidbits. Back on the 14th.

 

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