February 08, 2011

Repositories of Masculinity; Or, Keep Libraries Open

Your average macho man would, if he conformed to the stereotype, not have much to say in favour of milksop bookworms who spend their time dreamily composing poetry. The two images could not be farther apart, and yet they are in each other’s debt. For without poets we should have no Achilles, and no Aeneas; we should have a more sober notion of Henry V; and the Charge of Light Brigade would be merely a military disaster. How else are we to know the measure of a man, without some great insight from other men who understand greatness?

The juxtaposition has been made many times I am sure. Yet there is a missing element here, for poets need readers. If poets are not read, then no magnitude of eloquence will serve posterity. Original manuscripts of ancient texts were preserved by religious orders. Those texts were consulted by scholars who transcribed, translated, and published them, to be forever preserved in libraries. Of all the great strides of the nineteenth century, the opening of libraries – the democratisation of knowledge – is surely among the most important. Public bodies assumed the duty to maintain and preserve the store of human knowledge and to make it freely available to anybody who wished to pursue, or simply to peruse it. We, the readers, owe a great deal to those people who opened the doors to self-education.
Not so long ago, in a town or city like yours, a university administrative committee congratulated itself that it could finally get rid of hundreds of tonnes of volumes from the university library, thanks to newly available digital resources. The old tomes, which were formerly available for consultation by any member of the public, had been thrown into skips. Since the local library was also scheduled to close, the reading public was left with no recourse. The new digital version of the library was made available only to those fortunate people who could boast a university log-in name. Cost of said log-in is shortly to rise to £9,000 per year, since the only way to get one, other than by being employed by the university, is to be a student. Meanwhile the administrators basked in the empty space of the library. It was so much easier to breathe without all the books. And it was so much easier now to find a seat.
The self-appointed guardians of the internet have taken on no notion of liberal access to knowledge, and in this they are ably supported by governments looking to save pennies. By day, the internet is being made a pay-per-view medium, just as libraries are slated to shut down. The digitisation of the world’s libraries is a fantastic idea, but only if we can get at it. Giant scanning projects are not undertaken with a mind to making libraries more available; they are undertaken to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that ambition per se, but if the result is the closure of real libraries that inhabit real space, because they no longer fit digital-age models of value, then we have taken a drastically wrong turn. Knowledge is being returned to the realm of those who can afford it, and the richness of existence that lines the shelves of countless public libraries is set to disappear (see the map below of UK library closures).

View Public Library Closures in the UK in a larger map

The books will not be burned, but for no better reason than that we are now environmentally friendly. The books will be pulped.


  1. I will never enjoy reading a good book digitally. The feel and smell of an old book add to the experience.At this rate all the combined knowledge of centuries could be lost in a power outage. And while we sit around the candles don't you think one of the first questions will be "Anybody got a good book to read?". This virtual library not only can limit access, but context as well. Is there any money to be made on scanning this is a scary criteria.

  2. How timely this post! I was just having a discussion about how librarians in our local public library system seem oblivious to their impending doom. To survive, libraries need to offer something that the internet cannot, and the only thing they have is customer service. However, if you go to check out books, you interact with a machine, and if the machine gives you fits, you're told by the librarian present to call a number. Then you're told by the person on the phone that the function you're experiencing difficulties with is a convenience, not a necessity. And the helpless near-retiree attending gazes about, hoping not to be noticed until her 401k matures.

    I believe strongly in the importance of libraries. I just hope they figure out a way to survive.

  3. I'm a manager for Barnes & Noble. I love my job. I have some very selfish reasons for fearing the digitisation of knowledge. The more e-Reader devices I sell, the longer the physical store stays open for business. The more e-Reader devices I sell, the more people go to the internet for reading material instead of the physical store. Shooting myself in the foot.

    With most of the classics set as free for these devices (incentives to buy the device as well as an incentive to read something you might not otherwise have read) people will still get this 'manly' knowledge. But I think that the library or bookstore as a 'social place' will be sorely missed.

    The ones in my small city will stay open longer than many places' will. We're an hour away from the nearest city that actually has things to go out and do. I call my B&N 'The Disneyland of Jacksonville,NC'. Most people will come to just drink coffee, socialize, and sit down and read. The problem is, they're sitting down to read without buying.

    While this is what the library is built on, my bookstore is not. I like your point. I don't have an e-Reader, because I can't afford it. Libraries are moving towards letting e-Reader users borrow books for free through the device. Great. But what if, like me, one can't afford the device to begin with? I think that as with any new electronic device, they'll come down in price. Then that will really be the death of libraries and bookstores.

  4. Kyna, I totally get it. I used to be a manager for Borders in the UK. That chain is now dead. I hear the US company isn't doing too well either. The store was the only social hub other than the pub. Its existence gave people a sense of what they were missing, just enough that they would feel the loss of it.

    Libraries are one step closer still to being community centres. In our atomized society, they are hub sites. In recent memory I have been in a position where all access to the ethereal world was cut, and the local library was my lifeline. And of course, I spend my working life in them, even when all is well with the ether.

    Hatchet, the cyborg librarian is a bugbear of mine. Unfortunately, it is a symptom, not a cause of library failure. Fewer and fewer library staff are properly trained, for the investment is seen as wasted money.

    James, I'm cherishing my books. Lay in a store of candles, and should kingdom come, I'll wheel around to your place.

  5. I have not tried a digital reader, so I will not pass judgment on it. I have, however, tried reading from a computer monitor and it is nearly impossible to do for any length of time. I'm on the fence as far as digitizing. On one hand, I believe it is fantastic to allow certain works be made available that would otherwise only be available should I get on a plane to go to the library. On the other hand, I don't believe digitizing should be a replacement for the library, for all of the reasons previously stated.

    On one happy note, the city next to ours has just agreed to move the town's library to a bigger location in order to expand. Also, the City I live in completed a new state of the art library about three years ago in a building built specifically for the project. There is a glimmer of hope that they'll be around.

  6. I worked as a bookseller for Borders in the Washington, DC area for several years, and was recently interviewed by The Washington Post for an article on the bloody electronic reader. Suffice it to say that my deprecatory comments on this gadget did not go over well with the interviewer; I was just not willing to throw in a plug for this device. I love books and purchase several per week for fear of the demise of print.

    VB, a friend from my days at Borders just phoned to inform me that things had gotten so bad with the company, he decided to quit before the inevitable sack. My local Borders bookshop really does appear in sad shape.

  7. Digital books are too quickly being used more and more by the new generation of readers with resources ($). Libraries are much more valuable to society than just a book repository. They are areas of learning and communication to those unable to afford higher Ed. They are the vaults of human, and all histories.
    My little ones love real books, though my eldest does read online.
    Digital books like digital film and digital music may be space savers, but they lack so much.
    Great post!

  8. I have nothing per se against reading digitally. I mean, my job has been made significantly easier for having access to things that would otherwise only exist in far-flung libraries. But I totaly agree that nothing can replace a book - the feel, smell, weight of the thing. I also already feel the loss of shopping for books - browsing, with no particular intent. Amazon has not come up with a satisfactory way to replicate that pleasure. I'm glad to hear from Turling that it is not all bad news on the library front, but I suspect that Hilton's sense of the demise of things papery will be the prevailing trend.

    Scale Worm, you have hit the nail squarely in the face, and I would highlight the word 'area' for special attention. A library is a place to which one can go, and where one will find others. We have seldom few chances anymore to meet human beings face to face. When I learn that libraries are to close, what I hear is that communities are to close. And this should not be the decision of those motivated by cost. Nor should it be for any government to decide.

  9. We (the people) I thought were the government.
    I love libraries, have many fond memories of being in them, and fear, seriously, their loss to us all, in our "civilized" world.

  10. The loss of our libraries is terrifying. When I was working on my bachelor's degree, the library was my favorite place on campus. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the foundation of a great university is a great library.

    Keep your Kindle, or your Nook, or whatever, and give me paper, bound, with pages that I can turn, touch, smell.

  11. I am looking at this post again, and was struck by the photo of the bookshelf, lined with aged volumes. I am awed by the art that used to be involved in bookbinding, something you certainly don't see anymore.

    Understood, mass production of books in today's world means that this level of craftsmanship is not practical (and I would rather have mass production of books than no production of physical, tangible books at all).

    On a different note, I remembered the quote that I previously posted from T.J. incorrectly. The Thomas Jefferson quote that I was thinking of was "I cannot live without books". The quote that I ascribed to T.J. was in fact from William Parks, former President of Iowa State University (my alma mater), and it states "The excellent library is the heart of the excellent university". Both quotes are inscribed in one place or another on the building of ISU's library, thus my confusion.

  12. Dustin, I'm glad you pointed out the craftsmanship (puts me in mind of my post of the 10th Feb). Actually, there are some artisans and publishers who still make a point of this, and a few years ago I saw an exhibition at the British library of modern beautiful bindings, in tooled leather. They were works of art, designed to complement the contents of the book they protected. I believe there is an annual competition, but I cannot remember the name of it.

    Thanks for the quotes. Both worthy.

  13. I love digitization, but you are right--it's killing the purpose of libraries. I wondered whether to buy a Nook or a Kindle and they can be handy, I'm sure. However, thus far I've avoided it because one really cannot curl up with an e-reader or a Nook or what-have-you the way one curls up with a book.

    BTW, I just retired last week from a specialized library at a university. You will be happy to know that there are no plans to ever digitize the entire collection. Anyone may wander in and use the materials provided they have a picture I.D. from somewhere--anywhere.


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