Libraries Gave Us Power

Books of College Libraries are Turning into Wallpaper
Dan Cohen at The Atlantic

When you’re a kid everything  you encounter already exists. So, in a weird permutation of object permanence,  it must always have. Looked at like that, even the quite new can seem very old.

My childhood spanned a time when the closer-in suburbs of New York were still growing and things were relatively new.   As any kid would, I grew up thinking the parochial school I attended was a venerable institution, not the bricks and mortar result of an 8-year old vote by the community on its future. The same held true for our local public library.

I came to know that building and staff more intimately during my teenage years when I held a part-time job there. Ten years earlier, though, I didn’t appreciate how new the building was. It wasn’t as though that was a hidden fact, either. On our earliest forays the children’s section was confined to a few bookcases near the circulation desk. But fairly quickly the Children’s Library, a wing unto itself, opened, providing its young patrons with a space almost half as large as the main library. I quickly set about devouring the place.

1735 Hempstead Turnpike
The home of Elmont’s public library during my formative years. Fittingly, the name remains the Elmont Memorial Library, dedicated to fallen service members.

Mine, I like to think, is not an unusual story. I also like to think I’m not horribly naïve (though there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary), so a better approach may be a variant of Abrahams to Sodom: if a library helps 10 kids like me it’s a good thing. Place me firmly in the pro-library camp.

Yet an insidious idea seems about in the land. An old friend, my early warning system for ideas catching hold in conservative media, wondered aloud earlier this year, “Why should we build and maintain libraries anymore?”  We all have phones, he noted, and everything’s online. Who needs books anyway?

Eventually, my sputtering protests died down. There’s so much wrong with the question and its premises that I can’t dismantle it quickly. Yet the behaviors of the students and scholars referenced by Cohen align more with my friend’s view than mine. When did books become the enemy? And why?

I’m afraid I can’t answer either question. Some students in my classes don’t love the  book I assign, but they don’t especially love the case studies I supplement it with either. And while I sometimes consider books collateral damage resulting from the rise of group work–it’s hard to read a book as a group– that’s pure conjecture. I’d prefer something more concrete.

Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790
Among his many accomplishments, Frankly started more than a few libraries.

Cohen references two posts that strive to supply that. Both appear on a currently dormant blog authored by the historian, Michael O’Malley. You might not know O’Malley. I read his first book when it was published, it being a history of mechanical timekeeping in America and me having just moved on from my first real professional job, at a watch company. But, I digress.

In the first post, O’Malley suggests that academic publishing has not changed to acknowledge new technologies. Cohen pulls a neat quote from the start of the post, but the comparisons made later resonated more with me. Asking if publishing ought not to reflect the way we now live (i.e., consume information) he likens the unchanging state of affairs as being akin to basketball being “played by midwestern men lobbing set shots” or, better still, as “stupefying” as if all music followed a template set by Brahms. He’s more brutal in the second post: “…we write for the person we wish we could be, and in reading destroy that person we imagined.”

I think it’s great that at Cohen’s institution, Northeastern University, students are going to the primary sources. I may lack the academic imprimatur, but I regularly take advantage of access to dozens of online databases and tools not available a mere decade or so ago when I was in grad school. In a way, the library is more vital than it’s ever been.

The great Library at Alexandria. It’s creation was Alexandria’s greatest moment, its demise saw the city suffer as well.

But the books, I worry for the books. Years ago I worked briefly on a mail order publishing account. And it turned out our client’s buyers were not book lovers and autodidacts, devoting their later years to the life of the mind. The only correct part of that description is later years. Invariably they were better off people looking to project a certain image. The books were, indeed, wallpaper.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Thirty years ago interior decorators in the Hamptons would send their assistants to the local charity book store to procure books of specified size and spine color. No one intended to ever read a word.

And that’s one of the saddest things I can imagine.








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