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Jewish World Review August 10, 2000 / 9 Menachem-Av, 5760

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports


Can a library be a library without books?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- MILWAUKEE | Now this is a little depressing.

Marquette University, making plans for a new library, has decided that one category of items in the library might take up too much space:

Books.

That's right. Books are being regarded almost as an unwelcome interloper in the proposed new library. According to a report by Sharif Durhams in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Marquette officials involved in planning the new library discovered "what could have been a huge flaw in trying to create an information center for a major college: too many books; too few computers."

Originally, according to the Journal Sentinel, the plan for the $70 million library "was straightforward: build a large, new building, move all the books into it, make the space Internet capable, and give it some room to expand."

But that began to seem old-fashioned. Now, the proposal is to keep books in the old library, and in the new one create a "cyber cafe, complete with Internet hookups," a "technology warehouse," and spaces for "live video conferences" and "large, computer-driven presentations."

Sort of like an ESPN Zone or DisneyQuest.

The new library would not cost as much if there aren't books in it, because "the new building would not require space for scores of book stacks and wouldn't need the thick, reinforced floors required to bear the weight of more than a million books."

Well . . .

We probably shouldn't be too hard on Marquette. The university is just reflecting a concern being discussed by library officials around the U.S.: What will "library" mean in the new century? And what should libraries do to assure themselves of being needed -- to avoid becoming outmoded?

For years, we have seen the beginnings of a change in libraries. Videos have been made available, audiotapes have been cataloged and put on loan, computer terminals have been installed, CDs have been added. The thinking behind all of this is that the age in which the printed word, bound between hard covers, is the only important source of information, knowledge and enjoyment . . . that age is long gone.

Which is, of course, accurate. People receive information on screens, through earphones, via telephone lines and electronic modems -- a case can be made that a library, in the new century, must accept and respect this reality.

But another case can be made that a good library should not make itself a slave to the new reality. That a good library -- a great library -- may turn out to be just what great libraries have always been: careful and meticulous repositories of books.

There is nothing very sensory about a computer. You can communicate with other humans around the world via your computer; you can summon an astonishing array of information on virtually every subject -- a library's worth of information.

But you don't need a library -- a physical library -- in order to do that. Your computer, in your home, is a library in itself. The stacks of "books" providing the information for your computer are . . .

Where are they? That's the mystery. You hit some keys, and the information appears -- but where is the storehouse? It's invisible -- you can't see it, you can't touch it.

A great library -- just maybe -- should be a library as libraries have defined themselves for centuries: a place of books, a place to wander and browse and look, to pull volumes off shelves, to feel the texture of pages . . . a place to lose yourself in the magical feeling of it all. A computer, even when it is warmed up, is cold; a library, even on a sub-freezing night, is warm.

The big bookstore chains seem to understand this; those huge stores that are going up in every city hark back to the library feelings that many of the stores' customers grew up with. There's an essential difference, of course: The bookstores desire your money, the traditional public libraries requested only your library card. But customers of the big bookstores seem to savor the stay-and-browse atmosphere, the we-don't-mind-if-you're-just-looking subtext. It's comfortable. It's . . . like a library.

No one has all the answers on this; Marquette may just be acting prudently in its plans for a 21st Century library. But you can have all the computer screens, all the video conferences, all the cyber cafes in the world, and a library will not be a library if it's missing one vital thing:

The smell of books. That old, dusty, heavy, heavenly smell.



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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