Jewish World Review August 10, 2000 / 9 Menachem-Av, 5760
Can a library be a
library without books?
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:
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,
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
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,
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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