February 17, 2018

Alexandria Burning; or, The Future of Libraries, and Everything Else | Backtalk

As we breathlessly race toward a sci-fi future, questions inevitably crop up about the meaning and usefulness of reading an actual book. And, while traditional modes of reading inexorably erode, the very existence of libraries seems to be at stake. Now before you assume this will be a diatribe against new media and a fist-shake at those damn kids on our lawn, it’s really not. The world is a big place, and there is plenty of room for all types of flora, fauna and techna. This article is more a plea for respecting the old forms, rather than merely trashing it in heedless favor of the new. Libraries can provide a sanctuary, a place of repose and meaning outside the silicon buzz of contemporary life. No amount of Apple products can replace the basic human comfort of curling up with a book, turning pages with your fingers, inhaling the aroma of a new binding, and weighing a hefty tome in your hands while you relax in bed.

The future, we are told, will be overrun with robots. Our bodies will be replaced with synthetic materials, our consciousness will be fitted into optimum android vessels, and nanobots will swim around in our bloodstream to tell us if that beef stroganoff we had last night is digesting properly. In The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil spells out this future clearly. By 2045, he says robots will be making robots, and computers will become planet-sized and start to manipulate time and space itself. Abundance, by Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler, tells us that exponentially improving technologies will almost completely automate the labor force. The energy crisis and world hunger will be eradicated.

Finding Room for The Future Shocked

But rather than excitement and wonder, the common reaction to all this is: No, thanks. Even though futurologists assure us that we are heading toward a techno utopia, many are left wondering if the future is really for them. As a symptom of “future shock,” people find themselves longing for the days of horse-drawn cabriolets, snuff pouches, and Austen-ish country cottages lit by candles.

While libraries unquestionably need to stay up with current trends—providing Wi-Fi access and downloadable ebooks—they can also cater to the needs of those who are less eager to embrace the new gizmos of the moment. And, in our experience, there exists a silent majority on this front. Libraries in the future might even become bicameral in their architecture, with one area for cell phones and laptops, while the other has a fireplace, comfy chairs and physical books and magazines. If nothing else, a peaceful atmosphere will be appreciated by many who tire of being wired and plugged in. In this way a library will be seen paradoxically as “old fashioned,” but with a positive connotation.

Recently one of the authors of this article visited his brother in a tiny Midwestern hamlet. He and his wife, who are childless, took their niece to the local library. There they were instantly engulfed by noisy children, people yelling into cell phones, and general bedlam. When the author knelt beside his niece to explain that she shouldn’t get too boisterous, a librarian nearby overheard the exchange, and said, “This is the way libraries are now, sorry.” Yet it doesn’t seem too much to ask that children’s programs be put in a conference room, or that cell phone users be banned, or at least exiled to the “smoking” section of the library—as we used to divide restaurants in the old days. It is important that we preserve this aspect of libraries, even if it means segregated zones.

Straddling Past and Future

Many newer libraries today are being designed to increase bandwidth, yet shrink the square-footage for books. The campus library of Denver University has shipped its entire book collection to a warehouse on the edge of town, and a student must request a book be shipped if they want it. The New York Public Library is generating a lot of controversy for contemplating a similar book removal plan. This is not a new trend. In Double Fold, Nicholson Baker decries the policies of some big city libraries like San Francisco’s who are chucking entire runs of newspapers from the 1890s. No longer will a patron be able to behold The Yellow Kid on the actual broadsheet it was printed on. Instead, they will have to look at it on microfiche or the Internet. Seeing things in reality and seeing them on a computer screen are not equivalent for everybody—and those who still crave reality are numerous enough that libraries should be sensitive to their needs as well.

In our haste to make friends and be “relevant,” the library world sometimes neglects those it leaves behind. The authors believe there needs to be a balance—even if it comes to segregation of the friendliest sort—between the new and old, and libraries are best positioned to straddle both these worlds, a place of robots and fireside rugs.

(This article is our own and does not necessarily represent Denver Public Library positions, strategies, or opinions.)


Greg Johnson is Lead Circulation Clerk and Brent Wagner is Senior Librarian at the Ross-Cherry Creek Branch of the Denver Public Library.

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  1. I feel for you guys, and I surely hope that you’re right. We need that reading room. Moreover, I like to walk along the new book shelves to see what’s just come in. Don’t get me wrong–I like my Nook, which is handy for carrying around. But it’s getting easier to get library books for that, too. If those Alexandria monsters come after you, I’ll be there to help fight them off!

  2. Yes, isn’t this all part and parcel of ensuring that we are meeting community needs? Community spaces, spaces for “boisterous” activites and others dedicated to contemplation and reflection sound like a description of a library in touch with its community. I do take MILD exception to those who seem to prefer analogue resources being referred to as left behind. I hope that’s subtle humor. As long as there is quantifiable sentiment among your constituents that books and quiet spaces are community assets are you not in fact in tune with the present and future?