One of the great fringe benefits of having children is the amount of time it allows my wife and me to spend in the library. My wife and I order books online from the Ottawa Public Library on the recommendation of friends, or from the valuable book of book lists, Honey for a Child's Heart. And, weekly, we make a pilgrimage to our local branch to pick those books up and spend some time browsing the shelves. It's a delight to see books hauled off the shelves by our boys and witness the sheer rapt delight on their faces as they examine the covers and contents of their find.
Libraries are undergoing a bit of an identity crisis these days. As Alan Jacobs notes in his recent book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (stay tuned for a full review in Comment!), we live in an age of cheap and plentiful books. Cheap and plentiful books mean that any institution, any individual can create a library; and the ubiquity of words on the web only exacerbates this. What was once the domain of the rich has become the domain of everyman. This has public libraries and their political overseers scrambling to find a way to reverse the trend of declining numbers. Witness all kinds of strange and unusual suggestions coming to the fore (though, I admit, the idea of coffee in a library makes me giddy).
We speak of the decline of libraries, but it might be more accurate to speak of a two-sided phenomenon: a proliferation of libraries, combined with a dissolution or disaggregation of the public library in favour of private or non-state sponsored libraries.
Now the conversation about this extends well beyond my expertise, but I wonder if this phenomenon provides a unique opportunity to ask a few important questions. First, what is unique about a public library that fulfills a particular public need? How does a public library differ from, say, a church library, or a university library? Which institution is best suited to achieve those goals? Perhaps, in some strange and delightful way, Kuyperian or neo-Thomist theorists might find themselves uniquely equipped to say something worthwhile about this? If their thoughts apply to bus routes, why not the public library?
The second is a re-examination of how spatial aspects help or hinder a public library achieving its goals. Having spent some time in both the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library—dark, ugly, boxy, and stuffy—and the Centrepointe branch—flooded with natural light, airy, and surrounded by beautiful water and gardens—I can say that one is more likely to come to a library where, indeed, reading is a pleasure. My time in Ottawa has led me to see libraries as unique places where the poor and smelly can come in off the street, sit on a soft chair, and page through a magazine while enjoying the air-conditioning; where the retired can come and read their morning paper at a broad table in the company of friends. Centres of reading yes, but also a public space where young and old, rich and poor, can become rapt with the delights of reading.