Books and Libraries

by Benjamin Domenech on 7:52 am May 16, 2011

Seth Godin has a riff about libraries here which is timely, considering the cutbacks currently being considered and adopted across the country. It’s an interesting post to some degree, but overall, I don’t buy his fanciful vision of the future for libraries or the teacher/muse function of librarians. “The next library is filled with so many web terminals there’s always at least one empty.” Yes, because people are using them to talk to their friends, Tweet their hatreds, post on Facebook, and look for ticket deals and free music – not because they’re researching, reading, studying.

I agree that “the scarce resource is knowledge and insight, not access to data” – at least in the Western world – but that’s been true for almost a decade now, and we haven’t seen growth of knowledge or insight. And were modern western librarians ever really about knowledge or insight? Not really. They were less monks than clerks, as he notes. They were about connecting dots for you, not suggesting the next dot. Godin sings the praises of Netflix, but Netflix is essentially an algorithmic system with unseen librarians who tag, categorize, and shelve new material. That’s their primary function going forward.

(Well, that and not setting up Mamet’s Spartan to stream. What’s the holdup, people?)

I actually do think there’s value in guarding dead paper for the inevitable day when Skynet becomes sentient. But beyond that, I think the library is gone because the library is everywhere. Much like the marketplace for classical music, part of the reason it has less value for non-devotees is that you can hear Bach anywhere at anytime, yanked out of the sky. The ubiquity of the item makes its value dip in the eye of the beholder. For true lovers of literature, high-end publishing is actually looking up – see this interview with the CEO of Penguin for more on that – but for the mass of readers, a book is no longer a thing to be cherished, but a thing to be discarded when finished as quickly as a drag and drop. Except! You can just as easily buy another.

The library is dead. Long live the library.

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