Saturday, February 13, 2010

Do Libraries Need Books?

No, that's not a rhetorical question.

It's a question The New York Times asked after learning that a New England prep school was giving away all its books and turning its library into a "digital center."

I'm all for doing research online and having access to texts that were once only locked away in climate controlled rooms, but a library without books? That just makes me sad.


Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

This is a really interesting debate, actually, apart from the sentimental attachment some of us have to the bound, physical book.

I think it's pretty clear that libraries primarily catering to younger clienteles will no longer need encyclopedias, dictionaries, and many of the other physical reference works you might find in a school library -- those are all available much more quickly and in a much more updated fashion online or on cell phones. They will also not need as much as fiction as they've had in the past, because on the whole books have become so affordable to buy online, used or now or as ebooks, that the rationale for the circulation library at the beginning level is somewhat redundant now. (Especially for students at elite prep schools in New England -- did I mention I currently teach a course at one?)

On the other hand, I'm afraid that when this trend hits university libraries, we're in murkier waters. Libraries don't just perform a research function; or an access to state-of-the art information function; they're also an archive of physical artifacts whose importance often far exceeds the words written on the paper of the books. And that sort of archive isn't worth much if it comes in a streamlined, digitized fashion that can be wiped away with a few clicks of the mouse. There is a value in outdated information because it's the only way we can reconstruct the context of people in our past, what the state of knowledge was then, how and why they thought the things they did.

And besides, the sort of creeping presentism inherent in some of these arguments is dangerous because it subject the history of human experience to the tyranny of the Now, which may not be better, more accurate, or more objective than the past. People who trend towards such innovations should be suspected of a high degree of historical illiteracy.

Stephanie said...

I did NOT know that you were teaching at an elite New England prep school. I am duly impressed, as are your students, I'm sure.