Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 9, 2008

Guest Opinion: Are books and libraries out of date?

by Daniel M. Russell

One might think that holding books in a library-style building is an idea that's dead as a dodo. One would be wrong.

Books and magazines and everything that's made from ink marks on crushed tree pulp might seem to be fading into the dust of history before the sweeping broom of technology.

But before you consign your parents' copies of Twain, Milton and Shakespeare to the recycling bin, consider that you can still read them without a moment's hesitation. Can you still play back your parents' 45-rpm vinyl records? They were once the height of 1950s media technology, yet now it's hard to find one, much less find a way to play it.

One of the glorious features of a book is that it is pretty much future-proof. While your parents' 45s might be available as MP3s through on online service, there is a vast array of things not captured into a digital form.

Although I work at an Internet company, and constantly use online book and content access technology in all aspects of my life, I continually reflect on the place of libraries in our society, especially here in Palo Alto, where we create the future. Here are some of my thoughts about our local libraries--I welcome your feedback and comments:

Libraries are generally defined as book containers, pieces of architecture that house media, a few reference desks and librarians — but in fact they're much more.

As an institution, libraries have evolved with the times. Originally they housed texts for reading by the cultural elite. In Benjamin Franklin's time, when a single book might cost as much as a year's wages, books were protected by libraries and access was severely limited — that's one reason he came up with the idea of a public lending library

Further back, a book in Medieval Europe (often hand-copied by monks) was literally priceless for the average person. Only the wealthy in ancient Rome had private libraries of books and scrolls.

But like any successful institution that persists for hundreds of years, libraries change with the times to fit local demands. With the mass democratization and popularity of books for the populace following the 16th century invention of the printing press, libraries came to be places where students, scholars and just plain readers could come to learn about the latest ideas as well as to the literary classics and reference materials, all in a single place and available for free.

Public libraries in particular have always been a place for learners of every age to be immersed in a world of knowledge that is much larger than what they could possibly have at home.

"Ah, but the Internet changes all that!" I hear you cry.

Perhaps, although almost certainly not in the ways you might expect. Yes, many books are available online, and the ways we can now look up and cross-index texts and content are marvelous.

But libraries continue to evolve as well.

If you've been to one of our local public libraries, you'll quickly see that they're full of people reading, writing, working together in small groups with books, papers, laptop computers, backpacks and magazines strewn all over in a creative chaos. If everything becomes available online, why do people still come to the library?

A few quick answers: There is still a huge value in having a collection of standard references quickly and easily available in paper — meaning no boot-up time, and no peering through a screen of limited size, no charge-per-page downloaded. Another great library benefit is the staff of professional librarians who know a great deal about the contents of the information world they inhabit. They can help the reader, writer, scholar or student find what they really need.

While search is relatively easy, there is still a great deal of knowledge needed to negotiate the ins and outs of complex information spaces.

The Internet boosts a library's reach and collection, it doesn't negate its reason for being. If anything, there's an even greater need for individuals and institutions that can guide the searcher to understand what is authoritative, and provide a core collection of materials.

Finally, there is space to work with colleagues and friends. A clear table top, reference materials, a safe space and access to a world of information — it's the place to be if you're studying as student or adult learner, either alone or in a small group.

This might not be one's typical idea of a library, but it's what libraries have become — places where information is available, not just sitting on shelves, but in hands and under eyes, with places to work and people to help in the process of accessing and understanding an increasingly complex world.

Libraries are not dusty collections of texts from a past age but vital, living expressions of an information world that's in constant change. They provide a physical manifestation of the worlds of textual possibility in a place that is safe, organized and open to everyone. We need our libraries, and Palo Alto, as a place of scholarship and bastion of open access for all, needs an especially good library system.

Dan Russell is a 25-year resident of Palo Alto, living in Midtown and working at a large Web search company. He writes extensively on technology issues for both technical and popular audiences. He and his wife Lynne (a member of the Palo Alto Library Foundation) have been library advocates since they could both read. He can be e-mailed at dmrussell+oped@gmail.com.

Comments

Posted by change, a resident of Community Center
on Apr 8, 2008 at 4:09 pm

When was the last time you went to a travel agent? They still exist but their market has completely changed. Likewise, how often do you visit a bookstore and what you actually buy there? Borders looks like it is going under and Kepler's had to be rescued.
The library needs to adapt, to change and fast if it wants to remain relevant.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 8, 2008 at 4:23 pm

I think our libraries want to update and move with the times. They are certainly hubs of community activity. What is the problem here is that there are many people who won't let them evolve.

And, for the record, my favorite place to read a book is in bed, snuggled under the covers - one place that I do not want technology.


Posted by civitas, a resident of another community
on Apr 8, 2008 at 5:00 pm

Thank goodness: an enlightened view of libraries. What a relief after so often reading and hearing the intellectually lazy view that libraries are not worth public investment because they are obsolete in the age of Google and the online and and big box booksellers!


Posted by Dan Russell, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 8, 2008 at 10:24 pm

Travel agents still exist, but their market is much different because of the internet, no question. On ther other hand, the travel business in much different now than it was 10 years ago as well.

There's no question that institutions need to evolve--that's not my argument. If anything, I completely agree with you. Libraries need more meeting spaces, they need to help out with people trying to find information (yes.. .still!), and they need to help collect hardcopies of material that's not easily available online. (You'd be surprised how much stuff is still not on the web, and probably won't ever be.)

Libraries need to change; not go away, or be allowed to quietly become out-of-date or in terminal decline because of neglect.



Posted by change, a resident of Community Center
on Apr 9, 2008 at 8:08 am

"On the other hand, the travel business in much different now than it was 10 years ago as well."

The same is true, even more so, for information access. Unfortunately, libraries haven't yet evolved.

I never said libraries needed to go away, if anything they need a lot more money.

Your examples imply that you are fine with what libraries have become today. My take is libraries, as they are today, are already following the travel agents into servicing only a niche market rather than the whole community. This direction needs to change before it becomes irreversible and libraries start to wither and die.


Posted by Walter E. Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 9, 2008 at 3:12 pm

How about many small walk-in centers with computer and internet access and courier service from a central warehouse facility? These centers could also function as initial contact with government departments.


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