What are libraries?

[Currently reading: The Meaning of the Library, Princeton University Press, 2015.]


When I went to college, I had a part-time job reshelving books in the library. I really liked it: I was on my own, rolling a little wooden cart through a quiet place, placing things where they belong. It felt serene and meditative. I also came to know thoroughly the Library of Congress classification scheme (philosophy in B, religion in BS, sexy stuff in HQ), and discovered one day to my surprise that I could effortlessly say the alphabet backwards. I spent a lot of time there studying as well, of course, and it felt to me like the only space on campus where serious learning could take place.

Libraries are under threat every now and then by people who confuse “library” with “where you look up stuff.” Of course, these days you can look up stuff wherever you can find wifi, and you don’t need a building dedicated to the task. Indeed, we always have at our fingertips more information than we know what to do with, and that resource is of inestimable value to us as we play Candy Crush for hours on end. So, to these people, libraries appear to be very expensive wastes of space.

Libraries once were rare and valuable repositories of information. The famous Library of Alexandria was said to have housed the entirety of ancient Greek texts; when it burned down, those texts were gone. Forever. Over the centuries perhaps ten percent of the collection was recollected, thanks to the efforts of scribes sent by their masters to travel to the great library and make copies of this or that work. Each and every library, from the ancient world to recent times, was Noah’s Ark, preserving specimens over oceans of time; but whenever one burned down, all hands were lost.

But over time libraries became more than preservatory structures. Educated men gathered in them and around them, and they became the places to go to if you wanted to join the collection yourself. Soon they were centers for scholarship, science, literature, and learning. As printing technology developed and it became possible for individuals to have their own personal libraries, this secondary role – center for scholarship – grew in importance. The library did not merely house materials, but became a central nervous system for bodies of knowledge. Or, shifting to a more contemporary metaphor, the library changed from being a hard drive to a central processor. For the problem of the modern world was not to preserve knowledge, but to put it in order. There was (and is) so much information that one needs a center of scholarship to make sense of it all.

We delude ourselves when we think the internet can do this for us. To the extent that it does – when a search engine miraculously returns good, relevant materials – the success is parasitic upon the work of real scholars using real intelligence to sort signal from noise. The internet helps – boy, does it ever! – but it gets us to the stuff good scholars have made worth getting to. Scholars do their work in communities, and libraries, as centers for scholarship, make those communities possible. Under the guidance of trained and dedicated librarians, our libraries provide the physical and organizational structure that houses the on-going conversation that is knowledge.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Books, Items of the academy / learning. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What are libraries?

  1. Rusty Shackleford says:

    I can recite the alphabet quickly because I grew up texting back in the day when phones had keypads, the days before touch screens. We should race.

    Libraries are also useful insofar as they buy unreasonably expensive books from the academic presses for you — when you can’t find the one you need on library genesis (about 25% of the time, I’ve found what I wanted on lib.gen, or similar websites).


    • Huenemann says:

      I think I’d lose the race – I’m out of practice! And, yes, libraries are welcomed defenders against the heartless rapacity of publishers.


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