I was reading an article this morning about the long-prophesied end of libraries. It raised many good points that got me, once again, thinking about one of my favorite subjects: books.
You see, I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life. I write non-fiction books, and I’ve had a wonderful romantic (is that the right word?) relationship with libraries. I love to visit them, as time allows, and look through the book stacks. I especially love special collections maintained at universities; I can (and have) spent weeks in the bowels of such facilities. I’ve donated stacks and stacks of books (literally) to libraries over the years.
I’m in a minority, however. Even with my love for libraries, I don’t spend as much time at libraries as I used to. I love my town’s public library, but I don’t visit it all that often. Why? Because I don’t have time and I’ve long-since perused their collection to cull what I was, at that time, interested in. In fact, I believe that the last time I was in our local library was about three years ago, and that was simply to provide some community service with a church youth group to help dust the books on the shelves for a few hours.
I’m not alone. I can’t help but think that–particularly among young people–the number of library users is decreasing. And, from what I can see, politicians are starting to notice. That means that library budgets are continuing to decrease and there are even library consolidations taking place. The biggest draw at our local library is the fantastic collection of media–CD, DVD, and VHS–that takes up a sizable portion of the library’s physical footprint. But I have no doubt that Redbox and Netflix are eating into even that uniqueness.
It can be argued that such is the natural evolutionary result of more and more reading (for those who still read) taking place online. After all, the article that started this train of thought for me was one I read online, not in a printed journal in a library. And, of course, you are reading my musings online instead of in a printed book or periodical.
It may be that the natural end of such an evolution is the “mass extincition” of libraries as repositories of mankind’s knowledge. Were that the case, I think it would be a cultural loss. Online research is highly targeted, but doesn’t allow for “browsing.” You can’t do the equivalent of wandering through the stacks, seeing what information is tangentially associated with a desired book based on proximity to that book. You also cannot use an online library with the power off as you can with a real-world library.
Much will be lost if libraries go the way of the dodo.