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Save the libraries

Alissa Wilkinson provides a passionate defence for the library as a public institution. She asks us each to consider, "Who will save the library?" 

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Topics: Education, Literature
Save the libraries November 16, 2009  |  By Alissa Wilkinson
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I write this today in the ornate Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library's main branch on Fifth Avenue at Bryant Park. To be honest, I hadn't intended to write about libraries, but to walk into this branch is to be overcome with a sense of awe that nearly approximates the awe I feel walking into a cathedral. I don't think it's all due to my obsession with Really Old Buildings and Really Old Books; this is an awe-inspiring place, with giant marble blocks carved into archways, ornately hewn wood panels and shelves, paintings of clouds on the ceilings set into a bronze ceiling with raised figures and flowers. (Also, it's really quiet.)

Even the table I'm working at is beautiful, with low lamp lighting complementing the overhead chandeliers and a diagonally inlaid pattern in the tables. Everyone around me has a laptop out. Most also have textbooks of one kind or another—the man to my right seems to be studying theology, as he has several Bibles in several versions and a textbook on Malachi propped up next to him. This is an enormous room and only one of several in the place, but it's inspiring. You can practically feel yourself getting smarter.

I marvel but I'm saddened, because although this reading room is almost entirely packed with people working, it's evident that most of us are here for the free wireless internet, without the added cost of a cup of coffee or jostling for an electrical outlet. I'm grateful such a place exists, but it's true: I never take books out of the library (occasionally I've borrowed one from the NYU library, but I'm almost finished with my degree there and probably won't be back inside for a long time). I buy them, or sometimes borrow them from a friend, but I almost never check them out, read them at home, and then return them.

That's ironic—I grew up bringing twenty books home from the library every week or two, because I also grew up without watching much television—but it's just a fact of life. There are no library branches that are terribly convenient to my home.

As much as we like to bemoan the death of paper culture—say it ain't so, and all that—we can't deny that there's a shift away from paper. Some schools have already started to get rid of their paper libraries. Economic necessity may force the book business to go digital to reduce their overhead and stay alive. We hope it's not true, but it seems inevitable.

Which makes me wonder what marvelous institutions like the public library will turn into in the post-paper age. I think we'll likely have some hybrid of a study center—a place for those serious about their work to study and learn and gather in a quiet place—and perhaps a hands-on museum, where you can still go touch the books that we once had to haul around.

I'm not going to stop mourning the passing of the paper age, but I wonder if we might proactively consider the spirit of the library—is it more than just a place to keep books?—and consider how we might preserve our culture through the institution. Who will save the library?

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