Will our libraries turn into Starbucks?

The other day I ran across this query by Scott McLeod on bigthink. He was speculating about the future of the library in our computer age.

When books, magazines, newspapers reference materials, music, movies and other traditional library content all go electronic and online—deliverable on demand—what does that mean for the future of the physical spaces known as “libraries?” M.E. said to me that we already should be taking yellow caution tape and blocking off the entire non-fiction and reference sections of our libraries. As content becomes digital and no longer needs to be stored on a shelf, with what do we replace that now-unused floor space? Couches, tables and cozy chairs? computer stations? meeting space? And if we head in these directions what will distinguish libraries from other institutions such as coffee shops, community centers and Internet cafes?

And so I was led to contemplate the library, and especially the public library—its history, its function, its future and, of course, to look for books on the subject.

In the introduction to Stuart Murray’s book, The library: an illustrated history, Nicholas Basbanes recalls a book published during the deep Depression by a bibliophile named Paul Jourdan-Smith who observed that people were using their local libraries in record numbers. They were sanctuaries in a time of need. Basbanes then goes on to remember the mayor of New York, Fiorella La Guardia, and his radio broadcasts to the city’s citizens after Pearl Harbor. He always concluded with the words “patience and fortitude,” words that made such a deep impression on a troubled population, that the names were given to the two marble lions that flank the entryway to the New York Public Library.

Patience or Fortitude (I don't know which) at the New York Public Library. Photo by grahamwell. Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Libraries assumed new importance again during our current recession. Visits increased more than thirteen percent in 2008 and more than 10 percent in 2009, despite deep budget cuts.

Libraries matter, and for many of us, they matter desperately.

I started looking at them again when I returned to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. I don’t know what it’s like in most of rural America, but our libraries are very special. Most of them are housed in architectural marvels, many with marble fireplaces, stained glass, and fancy cornices. Others have fascinating histories—old grocery stores whose floor boards creak in the same places they did decades ago, whose shelves used to hold milled grain instead of books; homes with fluted Ionic pilasters and elegant staircases; a library whose stacks are in Canada and the librarian’s desk in the United States. Our libraries deserve a book of their own; perhaps they’ll get one before it’s too late.

The library at the Athenaeum. St. Johnsbury, VT. Photo by origamidon. Don Shall. Flickr. Creative Commons.

I don’t think our country libraries will be converted to Scott McLeod’s odd vision of library-as-Starbucks in the next year or two, though the rate at which things happen today is astounding, and nothing is happening faster than advances in information technology. The question for most book and library lovers is how can we do without the smell of books, the way they feel to the touch, the way they stack up, the fanning out of pages, the mysterious life that’s theirs?

What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers that have bequeathed their labours to these Bodleians were reposing here as in some dormitory, or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets. I could as soon dislodge a shade. I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odor of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of the sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.   Charles Lamb (1775-1834), Essays of Elia. Oxford in the Vacation.

I was given a Kindle for Christmas, and yesterday I ordered a newly published book, Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles. As I read it and reveled in its exuberant descriptions of books and libraries, past and present, I found myself suddenly uncomfortable. I knew the book would be a better read between hard covers.

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