Monday, June 19, 2006

The Relevance of Libraries

I have to admit: Until recently, I never fully realized the importance of public libraries in our society. Sure, they're great for the kids, and it's nice that people too cheap to buy the Sunday paper pick up one of those newspaper sticks (and, really, are those necessary?), but all in all, I didn't see the big deal.

This changed one rainy Saturday afternoon when my lovely and I visited the St. Paul Central Library downtown. The fact is, libraries in the 21st century are not just about frumpy ladies who shush you at the drop of a dime, but about gathering sources of information and turning that into knowledge.

The question of whether libraries are relevant is certainly valid. It's also prescient, as evident by the impressive new digs of the downtown Minneapolis library and the improved space of the St. Paul Lexington Avenue library (scheduled to open Sept. 9). One can argue that with the wealth of information available through the Web, what need is there for these massive physical structures? If we can store gazillions of gigabytes of data in one relatively small box, what is the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on buildings to house them? The answers are both simple and complex.

First, the Web is great at providing information. But that information is neither here nor there without the ability to cite your source (!), prove its authenticity, or delve deeper into the subject. The problem with the Web is that since there is so much information, we can't delineate (in many circumstances) fact from fiction.

Second, the Web (obviously) is not free. Not only must one pay for an Internet connection, one must also pay for the equipment necessary to run that connection, and have the wherewithal to understand how to use, maintain, and update that connection. Libraries, if nothing else, at least provide (through free Internet) access to a world that many people are denied.

Third, the public library of the 21st century, as opposed to the library of the 19th century, is a place not simply for solitary information-gathering. Rather, it is a community space, open and accessible to all, that can be used to advance the pillars of our free society. The perfect example of this is the architecture of the new Minneapolis Central Library. From the moment you walk in the door, you feel connected to the community. Meeting spaces, conversations, educational outreach, civics lessons, citizenship classes, you name it; it's all there. Libraries are not simply stoic monuments of information. They are, and must be in order to survive, organisms that foster discourse and community interaction.

Ok. I'll shush now.

1 comment:

Ilya said...

As long as there is a future for books, there will be a future for libraries. Umberto Eco speaks very knowledgeably about this very topic here. I urge everyone to read what he says. He makes an elemental comparative point that is not emphasized or understood enough: "Books will remain indispensable not only for literature, but for any circumstance in which one needs to read carefully, not only to receive information but also to speculate and to reflect about it. To read a computer screen is not the same as to read a book."