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The Browsability of Libraries

Books, glorious books.

Piggy-backing on Molly’s post last week about the wonders of Interlibrary loan, I wanted to express my love for the library.  In college and grad school especially, I wandered the stacks a lot, and allowed myself to be surprised and take chances on things that I often would not have found in a bookstore or online.  Taking a book out of the library requires no commitment.  It just required curiousity. 

As a bookseller, for the last 5 years, I often found myself reminding people of the library.  When people would moan that the book they wanted was out of print I’d check the Chicago Public Library website to tell them what branch it was available at.  People forget about libraries, and have pretty much entirely forgotten about all of the knowledge and serendipity that can come from browsing a whole book, or a section of books, on a subject instead of an article.  Don’t get me wrong.  I loves me the internet, but books: boy howdy!

Here’re some highlights from the Room for Debate discussion last week, “Do School Libraries Need Books?” As many people are arguing for libraries as against, but I especially liked the girl who says that schools could use the money spent on books to plan more proms. Priorities…

14 thoughts on “The Browsability of Libraries

  1. Wow–more proms! I feel like you can’t make that up if you tried.

    I’ve got a nice Susan Howe quote for Ms. “HayleyH”:

    “The stacks of Widener Library and of all great libraries in the world are still the wild to me. Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately in order to give a true account in his next excursion. I go to libraries because they are the ocean.”

    –from THE BIRTH-MARK (1993)

  2. Libraries are fantastic. I spent hours as a child at the public library finding all sorts of things I would never have discovered any other way. I worked in the university library for 3 years in college. My hours there, reading promiscuously, may have been more important the classes. Now I go to special libraries when I travel. My current residence is a half block from my local branch. I order many books from the entire Queens library system. I also pick up ordered books in Brooklyn and Manhattan branches regularly. I do buy my friend’s books and other books when I can, but there is no way that I could feed my ravenous book appetite on what I can afford to buy. New Yorkers are fortunate to have such amazing collections that circulate. Recently, I saw a short documentary by the filmmaker Alain Resnais about the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, 1956. The title is Tonte la Memoire du Monde. It explores the vast National Library in Paris. Architecture and books together make worlds inside of worlds that you can actually walk through. As much as I enjoy the way the internet makes things convenient by mirroring this idea in some fashion, there’s nothing like getting lost in an actual building full of shelves and shelves of books. And as the author Nadeem Aslam said to me after one of his readings, “Libraries are communism at its very best.”

    1. Why inevitable? Are public libraries really in decline? I did hear something about the Free Library of Philadelphia closing down some, which is a tremendous shame. Still, a lot of the libraries I regularly visit seem to be doing fine (although maybe I’m oblivious). And the Library Sciences program at UIUC seems to be raring. The notion of the librarian is changing, but that isn’t the worst thing in the world.

      Long live libraries! We’re short-sighted fools if we allow them to decline.

      1. On the flip-side (or some side) there are the many book-crossing websites and clubs that meet throughout the world. Also youth hostels have tremendous stocks of books and many let travelers trade one book in for the other (in Lisbon I traded the Hobbit for a biography of Van Gogh).

        Also on the big island of Hawaii there was a little, wooden open-air shack on a strip of public land that functions as a free library. People can drop books of, take some. Wonderful places.

      2. Here’s what I think will happen: Libraries will eventually decide not to stack reference materials like encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauruses, atlases, etc. because such things simply take up too much space and can easily be found online. Shelf space will be given to crowd-pleasers, page turners (this is already happening and will only increase). Other materials will be scanned and uploaded, or simply dumped online (this is happening and will continue to happen). In order to maintain the institution’s importance, certain materials will only be available for use at the library. This will be harder to maintain, and I’d imagine rare works that aren’t scanned/scannable will eventually only be available for a fee.

        Public libraries are no longer silent havens for researchers, readers, writers, and students but versions of community centers where people can use the internet, play video games, watch movies, jabber away on their cellphones while they “work,” and also hook up their external hard drives to download materials available only there (which, of course, will change as well).

        At their best, libraries were for browsers, lovers of books as objects of love, as containers of consciousness (as Gass describes them). When “everything” is available online, why would most people, who I’d argue don’t care about books very much, and definitely not as inherently unique objects, go to the library? And why would governments want to subsidize these places?

        1. I’m speaking about what I’ve observed within NYC’s public libraries, of which I still frequent even though the writing is on the wall that the writing will vanish from the walls.

        2. I hope that doesn’t happen.

          The library has almost become the default detention center, many kids who skip school go there with friends, play chess or look at myspace, talk on cell phones, yes.

          I think libraries have always been a refuge for homeless people and rightly so.

          But the library todays is used by people who do not have a computer and they really need that time on them, word procressing – I’ve seen many jobless people working on resumes, trying to get information.

          But then there are the people who play games and look at internet dating sites on it all day.

          The bigger question about noise is why the public in general has become so tolerant of noise. I don’t want to go on the whole rant about technology. It’s totally acceptable for people to have loud conversations in libraries, the guards will only intervene if you are sleeping.

          I’ve even heard of people in the dentist chair trying to answer their cell as another person’s hands are in their mouth with a suction device. There’s no going back.

        3. Yeesh, I’ll steer clear of the NYPL next time I’m in the city… (Or maybe I’ll pop in to see if it’s as bad as you describe.)

          A friend showed me an interesting documentary recently, some of which took place in the New York Public Library (central branch). The filmmakers got holed up in the stacks by an ice storm, and had to burn books to stay alive. ONE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, I think it was called.

          I’m all for libraries getting more and more electronic access, but there will always be a lot of value in having physical books. And there will always be things that can’t or simply won’t be digitized. Most of the librarians I talk to (on the party line) seem to understand this, thank god…

          Although of course there will still be many things libraries deem unworthy, requiring creative DIY thinking. See:
          http://www.newcitychicago.com/chicago/6776.html

          Note: CUL is no longer at MoJoe’s Hothouse (which closed); it’s now at 621 W. Belmont, 2nd Fl, Chicago, IL 60657. Great place; you should stop by whenever you’re in town (though call ahead first.

  3. Yes, libraries seem to be filling up with computer terminals and for a while DVDs(but that too is almost over). Perhaps, we should all get the I-MPLANT© and get on with it, but I’m just not quite ready for that.

    Lovely poem, BTW.

  4. Public libraries are very popular right now, as a result of the very economic circumstances that are used as the excuse for stripping library funding.

    Has anyone read that Nicholson Baker book about libraries canning tons and tons of old newspapers and other print resources on the basis that the materials are too fragile or brittle (which Baker challenges)? I heard he caused a stir in the library world. I need to read it.

    I don’t believe a democratic society is a democratic society without functioning public libraries. At least, as some public libraries are forced to cut hours, colleges still need them and ILL exists…

    1. Budget cuts for the library system in Queens were averted this last year because of a letter writing campaign. If I’m remembering the correct number, something like 35,000 letters and postcards were sent to the Mayor’s Office protesting any further cuts to an already stripped library budget. It worked, at least this time. And I believe there were some large private donations that have now resulted in renovations to some branches. If enough people care about it, some version of the public library system will survive, let’s hope for a long time.

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