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In the stacks

By Joel Brouwer

library_stacks

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the role of the library in your life as a 21st century reader and/or writer. I taught a summer class this past June, and when I needed to mark papers or work on my notes, I often retreated from the summer sun and my always-on computer screen to the basement of Gorgas Library here on the University of Alabama campus. The basement of Gorgas approaches my Platonic ideal of librarity (or librariousness, if you prefer): cool silence, greenish tile floors, flickery yellow fluorescent lights, indestructible but much-graffiti’d wooden and green metal furniture, creaky and ticking pipes crisscrossing the low ceiling, and of course aisle upon aisle of books, many of which (e.g., a 1932 history of Catholicism in Montana) may never be read again, but all of which stand ready, patient, in case you want them. I love it down there. When my mind wandered from my students’ papers, I got to thinking about how my relationship to libraries has changed over time. I wonder how yours has, too.

Back in the day, I spent a lot of time browsing in the stacks at libraries, discovering new writers by checking out the shelves surrounding those I already knew and liked. I never do that any more. I do my browsing online now, reading web sites, blogs, reviews, seeing what people who bought what I have in my shopping cart also bought, etc., and then when I’ve compiled a list of things I think I might want to check out–in both senses–I print out a list of call numbers from my library’s catalog, and I go over there to pluck those books from the shelves. I always stop and scan the “new books” shelf near the library entrance, yes. But mostly, when I go to the library these days, it’s the last step in the search process, not the first. (Or I’m going just to sit in that basement. Even if, in x years, all texts have turned digital and accessible from anywhere, any time, there will still have to be libraries, for people to use as refuges from the madding crowd.)

This of course begs the question of text-delivery technologies. If I’m going to read a novel or a book of poems, I want to have the book in my hand–I just do–and I’m happy to trot over to the library to get it. But if I just want to check a reference, or scan something to refresh my memory of it, I’d much rather just be able to click through a digital copy of the book on Google Books without having to leave my desk. In short, if I’m seeking an aesthetic experience, I prefer my books to come in three dimensional, analog form. If I’m just seeking information, I find digital texts much more convenient.

(I am aware that I have just posited a difference between “aesthetic experience” and “information” without explicating the nature of said difference. Sorry, not going to try, have to mow the lawn.)

Much is being said and has been said about Google Books and intellectual property rights and information wanting to be free and Kindles and the death of print and so forth. (When I attended library school ten years ago, the program’s official name had recently been changed to “Information Sciences,” but we all still called it library school, and you know, I bet people still do.) You’re probably familiar with a lot of those discussions, and I’m not qualified to add much to them anyway. I am curious, though, about how other writers and readers of literature use libraries these days. And so an unscientific survey. Please feel free to answer all, some, or none of these questions, and/or to invent your own questions, and answer those instead.

Do you go to libraries? Which ones? How often? What do you do there? How has your library use changed over the last twenty years? If you could read everything online or on one of those Kindle thingies (I’ve never seen one; have you?), would you? It might be useful for our porpoises if you would state your approximate age when weighing in; I’m curious too how much the responses of twenty somethings will differ from those of sixty somethings.

Comments (37)

  • On July 26, 2009 at 1:10 pm T.R. Hummer wrote:

    These are good questions, and if enough “data” were to be amassed from our fellow writers in particular, we’d have something interesting to contemplate, though it would be thoroughly unscientific (I hope).

    I am now about to turn 59, so I’m a creaky old guy in the current literary community. Nevertheless, I have taken to computers like tuna fish takes to oil (it’s nearly lunchtime here). I spend much of my day communing with my MacBook Pro, and the majority of the time I am using it in exactly the way I used to use the library: to burrow more and more deeply into the collective thought process of the race.

    As a consequence, I spend less time than I used to in the library. And frankly I regret that. The seduction of computer access to information is undeniable. It’s easy, it’s quick, and–mirable dictu–I can WRITE in the same medium in which I READ. I could say a great deal more about that, but it’s a different subject.

    Books as books are still indispensable to me, and I go to the library frequently to get them. I tend to take information from the internet in smaller chunks; for large, complex, extended exploration or argument the book is STILL the necessary medium, and likely will be forever (or perhaps not). But generally these days when I go to the library I already know what I want; I go to the stacks, get the books I have come for, and go away. In the past, I wandered the library the way I now wander the internet: aimlessly, but on a quest for something I could not name. Often as not I would find it. I also used to spend hours and hours in the periodical area, grazing literary magazines, looking for the newest and strangest poems I could find. Mostly now I do that online too. The library has ceased to be a wilderness full of treasures for me, and has become, instead, an ancillary resource.

    Research, per se, used to be that kind of experience for me as well. I would raid the library’s resources with the inaccurate compass of my own faulty knowledge as a guide. I still love the look and feel of old periodicals in particular, but I rarely seek them out these days. My loss, perhaps–though I have also discovered that I am allergic to the dust of old books and magazines, and I’m just that much healthier by virtue of staying away from them more.

    Clearly, then, for me the library is still essential, but my relationship with it has changed enormously, probably forever. There is gain there, and there is loss; like most things in life, it’s a tradeoff.

  • On July 26, 2009 at 1:33 pm My_antonia_78 wrote:

    I think your post speaks to the reality of the new “digital age” and this idea that’s out there among the techie people (Wired magazine, the Google guys, etc.) that the mass digitization being undertaken will render the stacks, as it were, obsolete (a sentiment they typically express with a mix of awe and incorrigable delight).

    What your comments make me realize is that this way of thinking is flawed: it all but presumes that the only reason people like us go to libraries is to track down information.

    But, indeed, for those of us who use libraries regularly (and with a certain joy), mass digitization will not satisfy our addiction for that certain kind of quiet found only among the stacks, that comfort in seeing all those volumes, in their carefully Dewey-numbered regiments, standing ready for action–even if the battle never comes.

    Just as the newspaper/magazine industry is banking on, among other things, the appeal of a hard copy’s “thingness,” so too do libraries provide a “thingness” that cannot be replicated.

  • On July 26, 2009 at 2:27 pm Marty Elwell wrote:

    Since finishing undergrad in 1998, I’ve only used the library for research purposes. I’m 32 years old. More specifically, if I know that I am looking for a specific book, but I’m not sure the exact content within the book that is needed, I’ll check it out of the library. I’ve often considered going to the local library to find a quiet spot to read/write, but it usually looks very crowded with local high school students (which is definitely worth noting). I agree that the digital age will significantly change the role of the library, but I don’t believe it will result in the death of the library. The depth of information available on-line can be limited, especially as you attempt to search further back in time. Also, some resources such as the OED must be purchased online and are free at the library. Basically, the library becomes an opportunity to pool resource costs, utilize technology and traditional texts, and consult experts who can help you find what you need.

    I really like the idea of using the library as a treasure hunt. For me, this is typically a good used bookstore. I tend to read slowly and to revisit books over and over. As a result, I like to own them vs. borrow them. I do however prefer having a physical book to a digital book. I spend enough time looking at a computer screen without adding all of my reading as well. Blogs, Amazon, etc…are great for finding new material, but I enjoy the thrill of pulling something completely unexpected off of the shelf.

  • On July 26, 2009 at 3:06 pm NEG wrote:

    Age: 34

    Library Use: every other day
    (classic Cartesian oscillation between gym & library–the two places outside of my apartment I spend the most time haunting)

    Library Type: public

    Last Event Of Note Inside: two people shooting up in the reading room

    Average Times Per Visit I Actually Ask People To Get Off Their Cell Phones Because This Is A Library And I’m Trying To Do Work: two

    Average Times Per Visit I Walk Past Men Looking At Porn On The Computers: three

    Average Times Per Visit These Men Are Contorted In Strange Positions In Their Chairs: two

    Favorite Library Pastime: browsing the 811s!

    Favorite Note Discovered Tucked Into The Pages Of A Book Of Poems: “Vin, Can you smell the exhaust fumes on the piece of fabric?? Yick! When you lay it out there is a pattern, call me and we can discuss possible options & ideas, Kara. P.S. I came by early & thought you might still be sleeping otherwise I would’ve called.”

  • On July 26, 2009 at 3:38 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I’m writing a dissertation, so I spend more time in the libraries of the University of Chicago than I do in my apartment. The main library, Regenstein (“the Reg”), is an imposing &, to my eye, beautiful New Brutalist behemoth:

    http://facilities.uchicago.edu/campusconstruction/cpcimages/regenstein.jpg

    Harper Library is my favorite, but I use it only to read or write in. It’s a gorgeous Gothic space:

    http://collegeprowler.com/images/standard/1436/harper-library-interior.jpeg

    Strangely, though I am often writing & reading in libraries, I rarely check out books from them. I have my own library at home. And if I need an article or chapter that I don’t have, it’s often online at Project MUSE or Jstor.

  • On July 26, 2009 at 4:07 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    Joel:

    Funny you should ask. As with many others here, my use is confined to research. By contrast, my wife takes stacks of novels out each time she goes. She’s quite good about returning them on time but, when she fails to, she’ll have me go to face the music in her stead. Three days ago she sent me to return her bundle of books, allowing that “one of them might be a little overdue”.

    Had I checked I’d have discovered that one of the tomes must have been taken out scant weeks after the invention of the Gutenberg press so, yeah, it was “a little overdue”. Worse yet, it was a “New Addition”: something everyone and their dog is dying to read, such that they limit the loan period to barely enough time to take the book through their revolving door. The late penalty for New Additions is one limb per day.

    Knowing none of this, I wondered why the librarian was looking at me like I was Bill Gates. Expecting the usual pennies-a-day fine I reached into my coin pocket and, as an empty courtesy, asked:

    “Do you take change?”

    The librarian told me the amount of the fine. I revised my question.

    “Do you take bullion?”

    Yesterday, my wife was doing the family budget.

    “Well, I hope you’re proud of yourself. We won’t be able to afford that new computer because you blew all our money at the library!

    And that, my friends, is why Canada has gun control.

    Best regards,

    Colin

  • On July 26, 2009 at 4:48 pm Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    Library: in the 20th century (I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,) I discovered Marguerite Yourcenar and Dylan Thomas, on the same rainy winter day, in the stacks. I also flirted outrageously, that same Friday. So I bless the day; and the Northwestern University library. Bookstores have served the same function in my life. Places to sink down beside a shelf and discover a blessing.

    When I discovered the net, I thought it would bite, and devour my ideas. It didn’t, it encouraged them; but it turned me into an addict. I fight daily, to get the beast off my back. What saves me is the pile of unread real books on the living room floor. The randomness of my reading online, though, has bled onto my book reading. I jump back and forth and begin anywhere I decide. I now lack discipline, but it feels so good.

    What’s also true is my profound joy when I discovered my poetry on a library shelf. I told no one. I slid to the floor, and read,like a stranger. More importantly: real books are sirens and I can’t ignore them. Precious as love.

    Libraries in the 21st century: I pray for them, the way I pray for peace. Uncertain that either is a given or a promise. Both need all the human help we can give them. As do independent bookshops. The notion of kindles (yes, I see them, no I don’t want to hold one or read a poem on one) but the notion is cold: nothing like reading in bed. And the smell of shelved books, in a library, or, in a used bookshop—is linked in my head to that nice word, “wisdom.” How 20th century!

    Confession: I love to turn down favorite pages and make notes in margins. As a child of the 20th century, I was taught that that is defacement, if the book is not “mine.” Substitute for such antisocial desires: always carrying a defaced personal notebook in my purse. And remembering how much I love the silence of a library filled with pages that others have turned, before me.

    margo

  • On July 26, 2009 at 6:02 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Now THAT’S funny!

    .
    Ouch!…wife – hitting – head

    Ow!

    with…

    Ow!

    book!

    Ouch!

  • On July 27, 2009 at 7:42 am Leslie Harrison wrote:

    Sometimes I am so far outside the mainstream, I can’t even see the river from here.

    Start with a very small town (600 souls) and a one-room library I’ve never actually seen open. Add a very small income, not a scrap of it disposable. Proceed to a town of more reasonable size (±5000) just down the road and a library there hooked into something called CWMARS (Central and Western Massachusetts Regional System).

    Call it a lifeline.

    I spend very little actual time in the library because my house in the woods looks and sounds pretty much like a library (quiet, dusty, lots o’ books) except here I can brew tea and pat dogs.

    The library’s own collection is, as you might guess, limited. Mostly I take videos and DVDs out. And popular fiction. And their nonfiction shelves are pretty good. But the regional system is a treasure. If I can’t get something there, I resort to something called the Massachusetts Virtual Catalog. Hot diggity. Right now I have books out from Emerson College, Lesley University, the Jones Library at Amherst College (which is my favorite system library because they have an excellent poetry selection and, because they were once, I think, a land grant college, the most inclusive lending practices around.) Also the Forbes library in Northampton, the Brookline Public Library and Boston Public.

    Mostly what is lost is the element of discovery–that magical cruising shelves near favorites in hopes something nearby is as good as something known. But I keep lists of recommended books, read reviews, use the Amazon ‘if you like this title you might like this’ feature and their lists and their recommendations and their buy these together features to then go shopping in the regional and statewide systems.

    The librarians all know me. They know I go shopping because suddenly I have 20 books to pick up. And the first season of In Treatment. And it doesn’t cost me a dime.

    In fact, the library is one of the two American institutions I am most enamored with. (The Post Office: Here, take this piece of paper to Nome Alaska for me. 47 cents? No problem. The library: You want to read that book for free? Sure we’ll find it and deliver it here and you can have it for nothing for three weeks. And we’ll throw in all seven seasons of Buffy. And The L Word and Big Love and any other TV series that makes it on to DVD. Plus so many movies netflix might get envious. A couple of days late getting them back to us? Here, give us a quarter. We’ll give you change.)

    I’m splitting the difference between the 20-somethings and the 60-somethings. I’m a 40-something. And I clearly have a close personal relationship with libraries. When my book came out last month, one of the first things I did was donate a copy to the library. It hasn’t made it onto the shelves yet. I think the librarians are passing it around first.

  • On July 27, 2009 at 7:56 am Nicholas Shea wrote:

    Age 45

    “The modern age has a false sense of superiority because of the great mass of data at its disposal. But the valid criterion of distinction is rather the extent to which man knows how to form and master the material at his command.”
       Goethe – On the Theory of Color. Historical Part. Third Division. Translation Lacuna (1810); 40, 150.

    No matter how much care and expertise is taken in preparing a digital text, I am always wary of its accuracy and/or authenticity. That is why I regard the printed book as so important. It is unfortunate that after many years of using the web, I now regard anything available at the click of a mouse as suspect. If I borrow a book from a library, at the very worst some vandal might have torn out a page, or scribbled notes in the margin – things I can easily discern. But evaluating the authenticity of an e-text I have never seen before is a different matter altogether. That’s not to say that web sites like project Gutenberg have enriched my life, because they have. But even then, if I find an e-text I like, I always end up borrowing the real book from a real library.

  • On July 27, 2009 at 8:16 am michael james wrote:

    Very important. Incredibly important. So important I cannot express correctly how important.

    Libraries will never become extinct.

    People will always want to hold books. Physical books. The kindle is great, but people will (no matter their age) will always want to hold something in their hands. Unless, of course, a kindle-type technology is all a child ever knows and grows up with, but this would require the parent to be of the same entirely pro-kindle-cloth. While it is a definite possibility (I say a flimsy one) for those technologies to become more the norm than books, books will always be a staple.

    It is a combination of price and access. I grew up with not a lot of money. I trailed everyone else — Ipods, playstations, gameboys, nintendos, etc — these things I received years and years after they were popular.

    It just will not happen.

    I love technology. I take computers apart, am the go-to-guy for all things related. And I prefer the physicality of books.

  • On July 27, 2009 at 8:51 am Matt wrote:

    I go to the NYC libraries, mainly just the Mid-Manhattan branch. I’ve found them to be kind of a letdown. They don’t have as wide a selection as the library I used to go to, the IU library in Bloomington, which was gigantic and awesome. Too many people here too. I really wish there was a public university library in New York that regular people could use.

    Ideally I’d like to go once a week, but it takes me so long to read things that I have to take a break to avoid things piling up.

    I’m not really aware of any changes in the last twenty years, except for the extinction of card catalogues.

    Death to Kindle.

    I’m 27.

  • On July 27, 2009 at 9:38 am albertine wrote:

    A visit to the library=opportunity for flirtation. Reading might be fundamental, but it’s sexy too, especially when done in public.

    In fact, I just saw The Music Man, which features not only the hot Marian the Librarian, but a few couples who use books as a prop to tart up their dance numbers.

    I’m sorry, but reading a scanned Google book, even in public, is a chore and a bore.

  • On July 27, 2009 at 11:51 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Thanks for all these insightful responses. I hope they keep coming. Are any librarian/poets reading this? Perhaps my old reference room supervisor Stephanie Strickland? Would be great to hear from her; a (former, I think) librarian and (constant and continuing) poet who has embraced technology with both arms. Or how’s about my friend Stephanie Brown? Anything to add? Or you, Sr. Borges?

  • On July 27, 2009 at 11:54 am Travis Nichols wrote:

    My Morning Jacket dude loves just that:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31DOyWR-K3M

  • On July 27, 2009 at 12:00 pm Don Share wrote:

    I’m one. How may I help you?

  • On July 27, 2009 at 12:02 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I’m 57 ! God !

    I’ve worked in the same library for 25 years ! God !

    I started as a door guard, & worked up to paper-shuffler ! God !

    I spent 3 yrs at night school getting a professional library degree – & never used it ! still low-level clerk ! God !

    The library is my Alma Mater ! God !

    I met my future wife by the card catalog ! God !

    I love/hate THE LIBRARY. It has really been my second, & much more appealing, school (I have had “issues” with classrooms since 3rd grade). I re-re-re-educated myself about poetry here. & forgot most of my own life-experience. God !

    I have always been a book-worm, book lover. Clear memory of my mother’s voice : “Henry, why don’t you go play outside?” God !

  • On July 27, 2009 at 12:07 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    THE LIBRARY

    On the downward slope of an August wave,
    in the windblown backyard (a vacant lot
    of frowzy ferns, pinched black-eyed susans)
    I close my book… an image surfaces.

    October twilight, far-off, deaf-mute.
    Obsolete as ancient Alexandria.
    Low booms of shunted steel, tumbling
    (train depot, Minneapolis Moline). Flat
    fields like rusty planetary rings – waiting,
    subdued and saturnine, for snow. It’s late –
    after school, piano lesson. I’m walking
    with my mother up the sidewalk, under high
    oak trellis, rasping leaves. Maroon two-storied
    brick, with spiral staircase, lookout cupola.
    The library sits there, off by itself
    along a ridge above the railroad yard.

    Inside, chatter of racing, raucous children.
    Cozy warmth of lamps above looming shelves.
    The tall, sharp-eyed librarian, hovering like
    a heron at the end of wooden aisles, wreathed
    in the peat-bog scent of popular favorites.
    I resolutely stomp upstairs, to the Older
    Readers’ Room, zeroing in on Cowboy Bob.

    Only a shell, time’s snail-pace carapace,
    her modest midwestern façade, our civic
    edifice. Inside, the expanding universe
    of wide-eyed plains – palmetto groves – blue
    tiers of Norway pine… thus plum-colored
    bricks unpin the fan of Scheherazade.

    And it seems my memory, our memories,
    are stored up there, as autumn comes on.
    Just as the ghostly palpitation of a Jack
    o’Lantern lures the last of the moths,
    we are reeled inside, we are taken in.
    Up to the too-familiar, foretold dénouement –
    bedtime, little Bookworm – turn out the light!
    Feet beyond the door diminuendo (autumn rain).

  • On July 27, 2009 at 12:16 pm Jordan wrote:

    I like the Mid-Manhattan Library. It doesn’t have the depth of a university library but I’m usually pleasantly surprised by its breadth. Also, since nobody in New York reads anymore, I often get the book I need without a wait. DVDs are another story.

  • On July 27, 2009 at 12:29 pm john wrote:

    Age: 46.
    Library visits: 3-4 times / week.
    Use: Borrowing CDs, books for my 6-year-old, DVDs, books for me, free events for the 6-year-old, in that order.
    Books that I borrow for me: Books about music, books of poetry, books about poetry.
    Have never seen Kindle.

    In the past five years or so, since I learned about online reservations and browsing, I use the library many hundreds of times more than I had since college.

  • On July 27, 2009 at 12:32 pm Matt wrote:

    I was just disappointed when I learned that the BIG library with the lions isn’t open to the public for browsing. You have to ask for a book and then they bring it to you, but you can’t even check it out. I went there once or twice when I first moved here, but I haven’t been back inside since.

    (Oh, and all those bag checks…ugh.)

  • On July 27, 2009 at 4:36 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Travis, do you just live in my iPod? (And could you tidy up a bit in there if so?)

  • On July 27, 2009 at 4:37 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Forgot to mention, I am one year old.

  • On July 27, 2009 at 5:49 pm William wrote:

    I am twenty-four years old, and I go to my public library two or three times a month to find a specific reference or nonfiction book. I don’t usually borrow novels, as I like to buy them and then give them away to a friend. My public library has big music and dvd departments; I browse there but not in the books.

    If I could read everything online, would I? I couldn’t replace paperback novels, but I would replace just about everything else, including movies, music, recorded books, nonfiction, magazines, newspapers, and reference.

    How has my library use changed over the last twenty years? When I was little, I was in the summer reading program at my public library, where I would browse the children’s section and nonfiction. In grammar school and high school, my school libraries were in limbo. The schools were adding computers; the books took up the biggest footprint but had little student use. I went to a top-twenty university with several libraries. My major involved buying dozens of paperback texts without much research. I preferred research online to the big library. I used the libraries as study spaces that were guaranteed to be quiet, clean, and open.

    As for the Kindle, the biggest advantage would be taking books and magazines when I travel. I always bring ten times as many books as I could possibly read. With a Kindle, I could pack lighter, but I love giving books away to friends or family or new travel acquaintances.

  • On July 27, 2009 at 10:02 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    .
    Two Library Poems

    1.

    Had a friend who always planned
    to break into the library one night
    and secretly swap the history section
    with fiction. Just to make things right.

    2.

    Like library stacks except missing
    whole sections of subjects and stories,
    wide holes on empty shelves, dusty,
    missing, my history. Family secrets
    gone to grave, never in the planned
    or sufficient time relayed.
    Like a book in the toothless library,
    torn and missing pages, whole chapters,
    our histories.

    Copyright 2009 – Ponds and Lawns, Gary B, Fitzgerald

    Age: forgotten

    Good poem, Henry

  • On July 27, 2009 at 10:55 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    I think I should add the word ‘Mysteries.’ to the end of L6 of poem 2.

    Don’t you think?

    .
    William: the only problem with your Kindle is that things tend to just…disappear. How ironic that it happened to be ’1984′.

  • On July 28, 2009 at 10:41 am Travis Nichols wrote:

    I have separated the Ethiopiques from the Thin Lizzy, but I couldn’t untangle the Fleetwood Mac.

  • On July 28, 2009 at 11:46 am Ramona wrote:

    The Highlandtown branch of the Enoch Pratt Public Library system in Baltimore was the first place I was allowed to walk by myself. It was two blocks from the row house where we grew up and had a wonderful librarian (I can only remember one) who loved children. Later, when we moved to the suburbs, the library was much bigger, better-equipped, and had a far larger selection; I loved it, too, and could walk there, although it was about a mile or mile and a half. Growing up, when I was reading four or five books a week, the library was a gallery of wonders. Even now, I rarely buy a book, and almost never for myself. If I’d had to rely on my own financial resources to keep me in literature, I would be in serious debt or, more likely, seriously ignorant. During college and graduate school, I was never far from a library. Now, at 25, I have to drive 25 minutes each way to access a public library. Plus, there are no Sunday hours, and on Fridays and Saturdays, everything closes before I’m out of work. This breaks my heart, but I am making the most of 21st century technology: using the online catalog to request books from even more distant branches and relying heavily on Goodreads.com (LOVE it) to build up my “books to-read whose titles I will never remember on my own when I get there” list. I also use it as my sole source of movies and TV on DVD, so I guess I can blame the public library for my addictions to “Big Love” and “Veronica Mars.” Not sure Ben Franklin would approve…

  • On July 28, 2009 at 11:47 am John Oliver Simon wrote:

    The universe (which some call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, each ventilated by a large airshaft surrounded by a low railing…

    …I dare propose a solution to the ancient problem: The Library is infinite and recurrent. If a traveler were to continue far enough in any direction, he would find after many centuries that the same volumes would repeat themselves in the same random order (which, repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude rejoices in this elegant hope.

    —Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”

  • On July 28, 2009 at 2:19 pm Matt wrote:

    It’s funny what you learn and experience in your post-high school years.

    Graduating from HS was a complete release for me, and the subsequent years in college were my most eye-opening and prolific. Some of the best and most enlightening experiences I had were at UNH’s diamond library: in the basement discovering the foundations of American Routes music in the media center, or hopping from one floor to another to compare the journals of Columbus and De Soto. Something about walking into that building out of the cold Durham, N.H. air and into the atmosphere of that library just can’t be recreated.

    Granted, I wasn’t a top student, but I fell in love with reading and writing in my college years, and now both are a huge irreversible part of who I am. I wasn’t academically enthusiastic on the level of some overachievers, but some of the most brilliant minds in the past century and further didn’t even go to college, so I considered myself lucky, and if there was any spot in which I could find solace for educational purposes, it was the Diamond Library.

  • On July 28, 2009 at 9:18 pm AMF wrote:

    Enjoyed your ruminations on libraries. I’m going to guess that you are an academic librarian since your main focus was on research and books… I only say that since I work as a public librarian(not really a librarian-don’t hold MLS) in an affluent suburb and the focus seems to be more on multi-media checkouts than books–especially in the last ten years. Our circulation numbers have gone through the roof in the last five for CDs, DVDs and books on CDS. The latest and greatest within the public library system seems to be utilities like WILBOR–allowing for remote BOCD downloads and the latest media checkouts, i.e. HD, Blu-Ray. We also have evolved with the 21st century and are utilizing Facebook and Twitter to reach out to our patrons.

    On a personal note, I still love books, but I find more and more use for digital formats. It is more green, takes less space and highly portable. I recently purchased a blackberry and have downloaded “The Wasteland” & “Tender Buttons” via Project Gutenburg and read while walking the dog. Love being able to check out (literally) the old stuff on my BB on pure whim and read right there in the park. The book will always have its place, but digital will certainly be the choice of the upcoming generations. They are the one’s asking about Kindle at the library.

  • On July 29, 2009 at 3:41 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    AMF, Next time I’m in an airport, I’m going to imagine that all the road warriors are reading Tender Buttons on their Blackberries. Thanks for the wonderful image!

  • On July 29, 2009 at 9:23 pm AMF wrote:

    rock on…another downfall of electronic devices verses books, we never know what our neighbors are reading anymore…

  • On July 30, 2009 at 12:06 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    I wrote a piece at Jacket magazine about a trip I took with Forrest Gander a couple years back, to Bosnia-Herzegovina. There’s some stuff in there about the National Library in Sarajevo, which was purposely shelled with incendiary munitions by the Serbs, during the city’s siege in the early 90s. There’s also a photo of the now-shuttered front doors and the memorial plaque outside. What was lost in the destruction is incalculable. One precious item that was saved is the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the most beautiful illuminated Jewish texts in the world. This was the second time it was saved: the first was during WWII, when Muslim scholars risked their lives to hide it from the Nazis (there was an article about this incredible tale in the New Yorker a year or so ago). I talk a bit about that, in the piece, too. Anyway, here’s the link to the article:

    http://jacketmagazine.com/35/bosnia-diary.shtml

    Kent

  • On August 7, 2009 at 10:54 pm Stephanie Brown wrote:

    Hi Joel,

    Some random thoughts:

    I could write so much about this topic (on edit: and oh, I did!). First of all, though, you went to library school? I didn’t know that.

    The school I went to some twenty years ago lost its ALA seal of approval (UC Berkeley) about ten years ago because it went into information as pure pursuit and lost interest in libraries.

    At any rate, twenty years ago we were worried that libraries were going away, but they have not.

    Information vs. library as place: this is a divide that I see in my colleagues. Some have a huge interest in information and remote access, Web 2.0 and Library 2.0, Second Life, all very old discussions now in the library world; I’ve met some Silicon Valley librarians and they are much plugged in to the information frontiers there; it is the center of the library world, if one exits. San Jose State, in the heart of the information valley, is, I think, probably the leading light in library education today. It has recently eliminated its “on site” classes for completely online coursework. The new librarians I hire all have gone there and they are super-techy and overtrained for what they are asked to do, but then again, I think I was the same way when I got out of school. I had to teach one of my librarians how to do reader’s advisory (book suggestions) for kids’ books by just suggesting that she think of books she herself read as a kid; at the same time she can build a database. I adapt and have adapted over time to all changing forms of information forms and their retrieval; the cyber life of libraries is interesting to me but boring after a while–because libraries adapt to information “frames,” if you will. and always have: papyrus, books, computers, eBooks, audiobooks, eAudio books, etc. Libraries are very adaptable and always have been.

    My interest in the last few years of my twenty year career in public libraries is the library as a space–sometimes referred to as a “third space” where people can go to read, think, work, talk, have meetings, story times, talk about books and ideas, etc. A place to sit. It sounds really mundane and dull and does not seem to interest some of my colleagues at all but I think it is of huge value to the culture.

    I manage a large regional public library: 30,00 square feet, 38 staff members. Our circulation statistics have gone way up since the recession started, but it was very busy anyway: in July of this year we had over 60,000 people come in the door versus 45,000 this month last year; last year we checked out some 60,000 items and this year we are looking at 75,000! In 31 days. We have 34 computers and they are almost always in use, as well as wireless access; we are very busy as a place to work–many people are giving up internet access and are looking for jobs, but they were there last year and the year before that–just not in quite as staggering of numbers.

    We also help them find whatever it is they want. The public library is a lifeline to people, it is the place to study for the many first generation Americans who come to our building. I feel strongly that it adds value to the life of the community and to the lives of all Americans. I truly feel inspired by its “democratic vistas” every day of my life. The world walks through the door–every kind of human being you can think of, and I love that about the place. Finally, you would be surprised at the conversations people have with librarians! It is like being a hairdresser or bartender–and I love that part of the job. It is a people job.

    Libraries, at least public libraries, are busy and active places. Libraries are corny, not hip; they’re without mood music and cute merchandise and all that–like one might find in a cool bookstore or a coffee shop. On the other hand, we make sure that we provide service to kids who want to play online games even if adults complain about it, we offer book clubs to old women that no one wants to talk to (take offense at that, but it’s true and they’ve told me so); we offer ESL and literacy classes, we save people money on their entertainment and scholarly pursuits and so much more.

    I have recently read a Pew study that said, surprisingly, that younger people (in their 30′s) use libraries more than do people my age (late 40′s and up) and older. This probably has to do with the fact that they are revisiting for kids’ homework purposes. Not all of them will keep coming to the library, but many of them will. Often this person begins her visit by saying, “I haven’t been in a library in twenty years” and now she is back, because she is helping her kid with homework. To me, that is the point that I try very hard to make her feel welcome and at home–and often that person becomes a regular–or her kid becomes a library user.

    I have always loved libraries, all kinds of them, enjoyed them at the universities I attended; there is just a great feeling in them. It is an indescribable feeling. On the other hand, I know many, many people who never use them and never did, even when their bookish lives were likely to propel them there–and I think it will always be that way. Our summer reading program had 2,000 kids sign up this summer, and some of them will never come back, but some will come back next year, and the year after, and in ten, twenty, thirty years, as I did, because I love the place as well as the information–whatever form it takes.

    Thanks for giving me a forum.

  • On August 8, 2009 at 2:23 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Stephanie, Thanks so very much for your firsthand report. The statistics are fascinating and illuminating — 2000 kids in summer reading programs! — and your spirit of service is inspiring.

    I did a year of SLIS at UW-Madison ten years ago, and was looking forward to my second and final year and a career in the stacks when circumstances intervened, as they sometimes will. I like imagining, now and again, going back. Sorry to sound smarmy, but it’s always struck me as the noblest possible profession.

    So anyways, thanks. I hope you’ll check back here now and again, to see if others have responses to your comments.

  • On August 10, 2009 at 6:30 pm Stephanie Brown wrote:

    Thanks, Joel, my pleasure to report! Will be glad to drop by. Stephanie


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, July 26th, 2009 by Joel Brouwer.