Friday, May 20, 2016

The Library

The archetype of a library is a collection of books. But the focus is not so much on the books as on their collection. A pile of 4000 books in the middle of a warehouse is not a library. But if they are catalogued and put on shelves everything changes. The same 4000 books arranged for easy access in that same warehouse is, in fact, a library. We might want to add that the books should be collected on some principle, which is just to say they should be brought together for some reason.

Books have never really been the only things in a library collection. There were libraries full of scrolls, no doubt, even before there were books. For centuries, libraries have also collected a wide range of documents and other materials, some of which are less portable than books, less amenable to being taken out. As a result, libraries have become not just places where these materials are stored, but also places where they are studied. Libraries normally include a reading room or study spaces for this purpose. You don't just come to the library to find books, you come there to read them. You come there to work with the materials that are collected there.

With the invention of the Internet, the "there" of the library has been challenged. There no longer seems to be a direct need for places that collect books (broadly understood as representations of knowledge you can hold in your hand). Rather, a library needs mainly to provide access to the knowledge that is available online. While it should, perhaps, also provide an access point—i.e., a physical interface with the internet, a place where you can go to get online—most people will "go to the library" online as well, from home. This lets us ask the question, If a library were just a website, what would it provide? What would the user find there? What would a librarian do?

Today, the answer is that it buys access to a range of proprietary databases. Research libraries, especially, buy access on behalf of their users to the databases of the major academic publishers. A growing portion of their book collections also consist of e-books, which is to say, books that are accessible online but only through the subscription arranged by the library. That is, a library is, increasingly, a budget for buying access to materials that have been hoarded behind a pay wall.

Libraries used to make relatively scarce materials (there can only be so many physical copies of a book) available to the public (or a student body). Libraries are now in the business of managing—indeed, restricting—access to materials that exist in superabundance (there is no limit on the amount of times a text can be downloaded from a website). That is, libraries today help us to maintain the illusion that knowledge is a scarce resource and, thereby, the privileges of the the select few to present themselves as knowers.

But here's the thing. Knowledge isn't actually "stored" in the texts in the library. Knowledge has always existed mainly in the living conversation that goes on between knowledge-able people (people who are able to know). Traditionally, the library supported that conversation. It provided a place for it. It brought knowers together with the resources they needed to examine each others' ideas. I hope the library can regain its place again one day.

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