HIGH IN THE MOUNTAINS of South Korea sits one of the oldest intact libraries in the world, located in the Haeinsa Temple. Since 1398, it has preserved, on spare wooden shelves, the 81,258 print blocks of the Tripitaka Koreana, the entire Buddhist cannon, a literature that teaches its own impermanence. The print blocks are still used today, one at a time, in a printing process that takes decades to complete.
Then, there is the Northeastern Nevada Regional Bookmobile. Every other Monday, Kelvin Selders sets out from Elko, Nevada, in a Kenworth truck filled with books. His route goes over Secret Pass and into Ruby Valley, where he visits remote and poor locations. “Have you ever seen a child running to get a book?” Selders asks. “I have, and it makes me feel my job is worth more than the money I make.”
And what to make of the Accumulibrary? This vast warehouse holds a bewildering array of materials, organized not by any human-readable classification scheme but by a computer that sorts and stores according to its own algorithmic whims. Because nothing remains in a fixed location for long, a researcher receives a “knowledge walk” through the chaotically arranged stacks. Is this a dystopian research library or the ultimate serendipity machine?
These three libraries appear in three recent books about the past, present, and future of libraries: James Campbell’s The Library: A World History, Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, and Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles’s The Library Beyond the Book. A librarian by profession, I read each of these looking for an answer to a tough question. When people hear what I do for a living, they might joke about the Dewey Decimal System, reminisce about the days of the card catalog, or wonder about my opinion of the ebook. Recently, however, someone asked me a stumper: what is the future of libraries?
This question hinges upon the major shift in human culture and consciousness that we are now living through. Flooded with data as we are, each day brings even more innovations and technologies to help us mine, sort, and generate even more information. Asking about the future of libraries is another way of asking where this big, hot mess of information is taking us. My job may put me on the front lines of the Information Age, but it doesn’t qualify me to become a digital soothsayer. Reading these books, I hoped, might bring some insights, or at the very least, perspective.
After finishing James Campbell’s stunning and magisterial history of library architecture, I can now definitively say that the print book will not be going away anytime soon. Appearing sometime in the first few centuries of the common era, the book as we know it (a.k.a. the codex) has established itself as a reliable and user-friendly technology, and more of them are being printed today than ever have been in the history of the world. But Campbell says up front that the library has never been simply a place to store books.
From the birth of civilization in Mesopotamia, humans have had a tendency to collect records of some kind, which in the early days were cuneiform tablets created out of clay. Campbell begins his history here, alighting upon notable collections of the ancient world, such as the library of King Ashurbanipal. It represents the first attempt to “collect all knowledge systematically, predating the much better-known library at Alexandria by 300 years.”
The idea to gather all recorded information in a single location becomes a recurring theme in library history, and it seems to get more attractive as advances in technology, like the printing press, make it even more elusive. See for instance, the highly influential but entirely impractical plan drawn up by Étienne-Louis Boullée for the National Library of France in 1785, which shows an enormous room that would house 10 million books.
Campbell’s own book richly rewards the dogged, cover-to-cover reader. Each chapter surveys a major period in library history, passing through the chained collections of medieval libraries to the open stacks of major 21st-century public and academic libraries. By the end, you feel the weight of Campbell’s analysis:
Human kind has created an extraordinary variety of spaces in which to read, to think, to dream and to celebrate knowledge. As long as humankind continues to value these activities, it will continue to build places to house them. Whether they will involve books or will still be called libraries, only time will tell.
But this book will also appeal to the browser, the dilettante curious about library history. Each of the beautiful pictures, shot by Will Pryce, carries a caption, such as the one that tells of the colony of bats that lives in the Mafra Palace Library in Portugal. If you’re like me, the photographs will become playgrounds for your imagination and cause you to get lost somewhere in the precarious upper galleries of a library like the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome.
There is another, less glorious side to this history: most of the grand libraries of the past were not intended for the likes of you and me, with our common lineages and vulgate tongues. Therefore, Americans should be proud of their role in the development of the public library. Several European libraries assume the dubious claim of being the first — even the Romans had “public” libraries (staffed by slaves) — but all of them were started and maintained at the behest of wealthy patrons. The United States gave the world the model of the tax-funded public library. The first one of these opened in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1833, and a photo of its front steps appears in Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: A Photographic Essay.
Interested in more than architectural significance, Dawson’s book serves as a welcome compliment to Campbell’s. For 18 years, he and his son Walker traveled across the United States photographing libraries, from a miniature one the size of a garage in Hartland Four Corners, Vermont, to the glass-sheathed central branch of the public library in Seattle. Dawson unabashedly states his reason for the project: “In a culture that is increasingly privatized, libraries are among the last free spaces we have left. Public libraries are worth fighting for, and this book is my way of fighting.”
The visual record of his journey creates a convincing argument. For example, I can’t get out of my head the photo of the crowded computer lab in Chicago, taken in 2009, in the midst of the recession, in part because it depicts a point Dawson makes in his introduction:
After the economic collapse in 2008, libraries across the country similarly began seeing double-digit increases in patronage. […] Sadly, libraries are also among the first to suffer severe cutbacks in funding as we debate the role of government in our country.
Dawson wants to change this trend, and he marshals authors and librarians to aid him, sprinkling their essays and writings throughout the book. The best of these avoid the nostalgic cliché of a child encounter with a library or librarian and instead tell a story set in the present tense. Dorothy Lazard, a librarian at Oakland Public Library, refuses to candy coat the state of public libraries and at the same time articulates their vital role: “As the last truly democratic space in America, where there are no entry fees, judgments, or barriers, public libraries offer a tour of our society’s ills and ill.” Anne Lamott shows up at an emergency read-in to keep the governor from shutting down the library in Salinas, California. “A free public library,” she says, “is a revolutionary notion, and when people don’t have free access to books, then communities are like radios without batteries.”
The daily business of running my small part of a library and serving its patrons tends to keep my mind from drifting into flights of fancy about the utopian potential of libraries. For this reason, I found The Library Beyond the Book by Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles to be refreshing, and at times, confounding. Transcending the tired debate of print vs. electronic, analog vs. digital, the authors take a long view of library history and attempt to envision possible scenarios for libraries of the future.
Both authors come with serious academic cred. Jeffrey Schnapp serves as the director the metaLAB at Harvard, a “research and teaching unit […] dedicated to the exploring and expanding the frontiers of networked culture in the arts and humanities.” The Library Beyond the Book itself is a metaLAB project, the first in a series that will investigate the role of print-based scholarship in the digital age. Matthew Battles, also associated with the group, has written extensively on the subject, in books including his engaging Library: An Unquiet History, published over a decade ago.
However, my reaction to The Library Beyond the Book varied widely, almost from page to page. One moment, I’d eagerly underline an insightful observation:
Medieval libraries sought to tend the flame of knowledge, to keep the glowing ember from going out altogether; they operated within a media ecology where scarcity was the norm. […] Now the project became one of keeping an inferno in check.
Or I’d jot down stars next to provocations listed on the outer edges of the pages, like this one:
Central Parkbrary — existing kiosks, sheds, and utility buildings within a city park are redeveloped as an archipelago of specialized libraries dedicated to site-specific topics. […] The park itself serves as an outdoor reading room.
But then I’d get tripped up on the critical rhetoric:
It’s this dichotomy — contents and container, text and apparatus, data and metadata, book and cover — that has long been elaborated and elided in the architectonic Sōma referred to as the library.
(Huh?) Schnapp and Battles aim to establish a pattern language for the future libraries, coining such terms as the Living Mausoleum, the Neocloister, and the Accumulibrary, and yet with sentences like this, they may lose one of their core audiences: librarians.
Librarians and library staff, to a fault, are pragmatic, utilitarian, and generally averse to theory. Thus, I’d expect some eye rolling when they hear a bookmobile called a “novel vector,” especially when many municipalities are struggling to fund such services. One reason my colleagues may bristle against this lingo is because we have our own professional jargon, using strange terms like information literacy, bibliographic control, and inherent vice. A big part of our job is finding a way to translate the concepts embedded within these words into something meaningful to the communities we serve.
Yet Schnapp and Battles make an invaluable point: libraries, from the smallest to the largest, have way more stories than they know, and The Library Beyond the Book represents a rare attempt from outside the professional community to help libraries reconceive and better tell these stories. Also, they show that imagining the future of libraries doesn’t have to be a gripe session filled with doom and gloom; it can be exciting, original, and fun. There’s this cool deck of cards that accompanies their book, with quotes from various proposed provocations. Could these cards enliven one of those dreaded strategic planning meetings, where library staff must consider the near future and set priorities? Even if someone doesn’t agree with the card she’s dealt, at least it might force her to explain or suggest an alternative proposal.
Before we get too stoked about the future of libraries, let me tell one more story, a fable of sorts, an addendum to that portrait of the library that has stored the Tripitaka Koreana for centuries. In the 1970s, the authorities decided to relocate the ancient treasure to a specially designed, climate-controlled concrete bunker in the lowlands. Medieval temples have no HVAC, after all. Yet the first few print blocks moved to this modern facility quickly deteriorated and were soon whisked back up the mountain. Apparently, over countless seasons, the library and its contents had developed a symbiotic relationship.
Yet even this remarkable library does not exist unto itself — it is there to serve a religious community intent on printing and disseminating the Buddhist canon. One of the reasons it has persisted is because it’s being used.
Back to that question: what is the future of libraries? After reading these books, I have found one answer. It depends on us.
Justin Wadland is the author of Trying Home: The Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound.