Some of my fondest memories at school are of libraries, of devouring whatever caught my eye from the stacks. It was a quiet haven from the rush of the outside.
Are libraries still relevant in the age of Google and Wikipedia?
For me, yes. I borrow dozens of books from the Toronto Public Library each week, browsing their online catalogue for books to request for delivery. There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than curled up with a stack of books.
It’s an amazing thing, to be able to borrow more books than you can buy, to take home more books than you can carry. I haven’t really taken advantage of reference librarians’ services, but that’s because I enjoy diving into books.
Libraries are the first taste many people have of freely learning from neatly structured knowledge, more interest-driven than textbooks, more comprehensive and more reliable than the chaos of the Web. In places without public libraries or where not everyone has broadband, school libraries are even more important.
It takes work and space and money to make a library. I have the greatest respect for librarians, who have to decide which books will be the best use of a limited budget, how to arrange the space in order to invite people in and encourage them to read, and all sorts of other things I take for granted when I read a book.
Librarians are awesome in other ways, too. They care a lot about privacy and freedom. They’ve thought about how to organize digital information and keep things accessible. Many of the Web 2.0 tools I’m excited about benefited from the thoughts and insights of librarians.
What would I like to see in libraries of the future? Social recommendations, like the way Amazon does it. I use libraries heavily, and I’d love to see recommendations of books based on things I’ve checked out in the past. Even someone who’s just starting out might get lured in by all the great books out there.
Other people have thought a lot about how libraries can stay relevant and show the value they provide. Me, I’m just a fan. =)
Thanks to dmcordell for the nudge to think about this!
I have a confession to make: I stalk the Toronto Public Library.
The library publishes a list of new acquisitions online every 15th of the month. And every 15th of the month, I check out the new releases for business and other topics I’m interested, pick the ones I’m interested in, and hand my list off to an assistant who then performs my place-hold-on-book task for each and every book on that list. This takes more time than just reserving the books myself, but it saves me lots of clicking back and forth through the list.
Then the books slowly filter in. Some books already have a backlog of holds, fortunately, so I don’t (usually) have 50 books descending on the Annette branch all at once. We’ve set aside a shelf for library books, although they usually spill over to chairs and tables as well.
I snack on the books, browsing through them to find the nuggets of insight that distinguish books from the numerous others written on the same topic.
When my three-week window is up, the popular books go back, and the less-popular ones might either be returned or renewed. Then it’s almost the 15th again, with a fresh new batch of books waiting to be picked over…
Image via Wikipedia
As I write this, my shelves hold 50 books from the Toronto Public Library (the maximum you can have out at a time), and I’ve placed holds on 46 more (four away from the maximum for that, too).
I really, really, really like libraries.
It’s a great improvement over standing in bookstores, trying to figure out which one of ten books I would get, furtively skimming through books to absorb the content and writing style so that I could pick the keepers (or simply slurp the ideas from the book, and move on).
I still buy books. I buy them to give to friends, or to turn to for handy inspiration.
But oh, the library…
My first memory of a library outside the bookshelves that lined our house was the Learning Resource Center (or LRC) at my grade school. In addition to rows and rows of shelves, it had colorful books in a small carpeted play area. I’d often curl up there with random things I’d pull off the shelves: classic fiction alternated with Disney stories, reference books matched with fairytales.
My high school library had the largest dictionary I’d ever seen, reference books galore, and a decent collection of science fiction and other novels. I remember coming across a list of phobias and manias in a psychology reference once, and being absolutely fascinated by the names that people had given all these concepts. My favorite was trichorrhexophobia, the fear of splitting hairs. But Google can only find one page that has that term (aside from this one, once it’s indexed). Was it a figment of my teenage imagination, or have the years warped the spelling in my memories?
My university library had a computerized system. While I loved the ease of searching the catalog from my own computer (and even wrote a Perl script that scraped the search results into my database), I missed the familiarity of running into the same scrawled names on library check-out cards. But it was a huge library that spanned several stories, and it had so, so many books. I read and read and read.
And now this. Toronto. One of the largest library systems in the world. As a graduate student, I had access to the towering Robarts Library as well. I thought I’d miss the stacks a lot after I graduated, but the Toronto Public Library is immense and I can find almost everything I need (aside from scholarly publications, which I sometimes wish I still had easy access to, but ah well).
Someday, I want to build a library. There’s something about coming across books I would never have searched for, and I want to share that with the future.