Libraries Without Books?

So last week in San Antonio a new library opened and there were articles about it on CNN and other news sites. Why was this such a newsworthy event?

It’s a library with no books. A modern library. A very expensive facility — a digital collection. I know it’s probably the harbinger of future libraries, but it’s just somehow wrong to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the digital possibilities — so many collections and archives are digitizing rare books and manuscripts and that is making research much easier. l enjoy the ease with which I can use academic search engines from anywhere. And how much better can it get when you can actually get to download a file of an article rather than having to physically search for it and copy it? Oh, it’s truly wonderful.

Look at how librarians are now called “information specialists” and how they must be technologically tuned in.

But I confess to missing things like a real, hard-copy card catalog. Yes, digital catalogs and specialized academic search engines are convenient. These save much time and speed up research. I spent many hours with paper MLA bibliographies and then wandering the stacks for journals to copy articles from. And hours at the card catalogue. Certainly the time saving alone is a blessing. Yet nothing can match the physical act of flipping through the cards to discover books related to what you’re searching. That’s not something that happens with a digital academic search engine. Many times, I serendipitously discovered material by sheer accident because I just looked at the cards near the one I needed.

And when there are no physical books, no stacks as we’ve known them, there’s no wandering through and making random discoveries. It’s certainly highly efficient, but it’s less fun, at least for me. I mean, once I had the call number I needed (after using the card catalogue and coming up with a list of possible books), I’d head for the stacks with that call number. But I’d wander to other shelves with similar call numbers to see what I’d missed. Again, many times I found real treasures this way.

I am typing this on my iPad mini, which has a Kindle reader. The convenience and space-saving possible with an e-reader and e-books are a real boon, especially for someone who travels a lot. Yet there’s nothing quite like a physical book for the sheer tactile experience of holding the book, feeling its heft, turning the pages. And with your own books (those for research), you have the freedom to make notes, to underline. I know that e-book readers have those features, but still making notes this way isn’t as easy or as natural.

After a career teaching literature and composition, I have acquired more books than I ever dreamed about. True, I’ve purged some. But there are probably thousands in my home. Many I’ll never use to teach from again. I could and might purge some of those. Some of my younger teacher friends might be able to use some.

In the end, though, I find it difficult to follow through with ridding myself of all of them. They’re just too much part of me — not just part of my career, but truly part of me, of who I am.

Books — physical books — have a presence. They offer themselves to us. Well-used and worn, they reflect our own lives as we age. In decorating magazines, I see far too many beautiful libraries with books that are beautiful — and that are pristine. They’re not used. They’re part of the “look” rather than authentic. The spaces look nice, but ultimately too neat and not really usable.

No, books in my house have a very different look. Most shelves have double rows of books, one stacked on top of another, or even double-double stacked shelves. And I have grouped books in a way that is useful — to me. American literature certainly dominates — with an 8×4 foot bookcase for 17th-19th centuries and half of another 8×4 bookcase for 20th century books. A smaller bookcase has yet more books, on theory, that I can’t reallly categorize. British lit — especially Shakespeare – can be found on other shelves. There are a couple of small bookcases for poetry. There’s a huge old library bookcase with novels and some textbooks. And then there are the two bookcases for Greek-related literature and language. Science fiction and mysteries live on wallshelves. Craft books are elsewhere in the house, as are my Greek language textbooks and workbooks. And then there are the books on other topics I’m interested in.

Periodically I have to remove the piles of books from my bed and return them to their proper homes. I mean, I do need room in the bed for me and for the pets.

So libraries are places that I have many fond memories of. My first library book card, for the Crowley Public Library, opened the world for me. I had the use of the school library at Egan Elementary (which had books for up to 12th grade even after the high school closed), but that wasn’t good for summertime. I’ve used libraries in every place I’ve lived. I have even managed to get into the Reading Room at the British Library.

Reading about that new library in San Antonio made me a bit sad. Books, after all, have shaped my life — as they have for so many people. I know this library will be efficient and useful. But I’m not sure it will be fun and a place of discovery.

That’s the loss.

Since this is Banned Books Week, I think it’s appropriate to think about the role of libraries in our lives and our communities. We can pick from books and magazines; they are not censored. That’s a joy many people don’t share.

Maybe I’ll go to the library tomorrow and look through the stacks.

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