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July 18, 2012 2:07 PM   Subscribe

"This technology cannot simply substitute for the great libraries of the present. After all, libraries are not just repositories of books. They are communities, sources of expertise, and homes to lovingly compiled collections that amount to far more than the sum of their individual printed parts. Their physical spaces, especially in grand temples of learning like the NYPL, subtly influence the way that reading and writing takes place in them. And yet it is foolish to think that libraries can remain the same with the new technology on the scene. The Bookless Library, by David Bell (print ready version).

Two supporting links from the comment thread of the article: a series of letters in the New York Review of Books about the NYPL plan, and an editorial in n+1. Discussion of the NYPL's plan previously on Metafilter.
posted by codacorolla (13 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Just remember, when building your planet-sized library, be very careful about which forest you use to do so.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:08 PM on July 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


Now that the Library of Babel has been digitized, we can finally dismantle the infinite plane of hexagonal shelves which comprises our universe and replace it with an illimited teen center, or perhaps a sumless expanse of Wi-Fi hotspots.
posted by Iridic at 2:30 PM on July 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


How pissed would David Bell be that I'm reading this in a web browser?
posted by deathpanels at 2:50 PM on July 18, 2012


How pissed would David Bell be that I'm reading this in a web browser?

The idea that people who want to keep libraries as libraries, as physical entities, are vehemently enraged at the use of the internet is one that needs to die now. As the article itself points out reading via electronic devices will rise and rise and cause changes in libraries. But it also says "YET THE SACRIFICES entailed—the loss of physical libraries, and of librarians—would still be massive, and culturally tragic. To start with, libraries are, obviously, not just places to read books. They are communities."

What libraries provide is so much more than the texts on the shelves. They are spaces where you can go for quiet. To sit. To ask advice. To use computers when you can't afford one. To go to reading groups. To public lectures. To talk to people who know where to get information. Who are experts in their areas. (Well, they used to have these people.) And, yes, to read. To read in a space designed for reading instead of in a loud, cramped space. Maybe even to read your Kindle in safety and in the knowledge that we as a society have decided that the pursuit of information is worth devoting some physical space in our communities to.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 3:01 PM on July 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


Sure, libraries are communities and whatnot. That's a problem with ebooks.

An even bigger problem with ebooks is that they don't work. There are a hundred things an ebook won't do that an physical book can't. (Be read in the bathtub. Be read aloud on page N while also be scanned on page N+M for the end of the chapter. Be quickly flipped back to look at the equation/image/quote on page 18. Etc.) And very few of the advantages of being e- are being exploited, such as copying.
posted by DU at 3:09 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


lesbiassparrow that's a good point.


Maybe the real conflict here, is not 'digital versus paper,' rather, how do we as people provide a physical space for something that has limited physical presence?

That's a pretty difficult thing. The only other comparison I can think of is how people tend to make their family rooms a comfortable place for friends and family to congregate to watch TV.

But would happen if you had to make a living room for complete strangers who all needed that space for different reasons?

I think it's incredibly important to have public space devoted to this, I'm just wondering what in the hell it looks like.
posted by Tevin at 3:13 PM on July 18, 2012


But would happen if you had to make a living room for complete strangers who all needed that space for different reasons? I think it's incredibly important to have public space devoted to this, I'm just wondering what in the hell it looks like.

I think the sad thing is that we already have these spaces in many of the great public libraries of the world. It's just that they're expensive to maintain and staff and, as the article points out, sitting on some very prime real estate. And many of their most disadvantaged patrons are the sort of people that TBTB don't give a toss about. And anyone who complains about their destruction gets labelled as a Luddite who just doesn't understand the future.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 3:48 PM on July 18, 2012


I love the NYPL. It is also the house that opium built. How ironic.
posted by elmaddog at 4:21 PM on July 18, 2012


I think that those who say "Okay! We can digitize everything! Now lets get rid of all those pesky books!" are mostly those who neither like nor understand reading.

I've spent three of the last 4 weeks sitting in dedicated spaces that I flew to get to, reading bound manuscripts, backless, bindingless single copies of 16th century plays, and incredibly ancient lists and letters. It's awesome. The British Library, in particular, makes me want to quit my job, fly to England and sleep on the plaza so that I can READ IT ALL.
posted by jrochest at 6:36 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the article hits the nail on the head: libraries are important for a host of reasons beyond just housing paper books, but they're going to have to evolve to keep up with the times. That said I think libraries are crucial centers for a healthy society and would do anything in my power to help support them. I'd totally be cool with it if Congress decided to divert the Pentagon's budget straight into the library system.

As for the evolution, librarians are both smart and crafty. They'll figure it out.

Also, screw HarperCollins for putting expiration dates on their e-books. Publishers (and copyright law) need to get on board the knowledge for all bandwagon pronto. It's what books are made for.
posted by nowhere man at 7:16 PM on July 18, 2012


Very interesting post. Thanks for the direction.

A personal aside on libraries-
I just got back from a visit to my childhood home and on the spur of the moment decided to stop by the children's room at the main public library in the city I grew up near. Even though there are many differences, including computers,etc.., it was filled with kids reading and talking with library workers.
When I took a photograph I burst into tears at the memory of what that place meant to a kid who lived out in the sticks and could not afford to buy books. Luckily the still human librarians were very sweet and understanding. They asked if they could help me, but I told them that libraries already had helped me my whole life.
I know- a little maudlin, but true.
posted by Isadorady at 7:48 PM on July 18, 2012


"Julius Caesar has just aided the young queen Cleopatra in crushing a rebellion in the Egyptian capital. In the battle, though, the great library of Alexandria, the repository of all the world’s wisdom and knowledge, has gone up in flames. As Cleopatra tends Caesar’s wounds, he turns to her and whispers, “I’m sorry about your library.”
posted by unliteral at 9:53 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Be read in the bathtub.

Put it in a Zip-Loc.

Be read aloud on page N while also be scanned on page N+M for the end of the chapter.

Well, the trivial solution would be to have the same book open on two different readers. Since a "reader" can be any computing device you could just use your phone for the scanning bit.

Not the most convenient, I'll admit. Slightly less trivial, but certainly feasible, would be to get reader software that allows EMACS-style window-panes. If you're willing to do file conversion you could simply use EMACS.

Be quickly flipped back to look at the equation/image/quote on page 18. Etc.

Er, I guess this depends on your standard of "quick"? But I can usually enter the number 18 into the GO TO PAGE box faster than I can find page 18 in a physical book.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:01 AM on July 19, 2012


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