Passion: Libraries

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[Thanks to scottbenbow for pitching this show.]

British library

The Reading Room at the British Museum in London is another one of my favorite libraries. Marx, Lenin, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells all had carrels there! [Christopher Chan / Flickr]

My own passion for libraries started early. I loved my local library. Growing up, I would go there at least once a week, browse with no agenda, and leave with two or three surprises. I read Paul Auster before I knew who Paul Auster was. I went through a biography phase, a John Bellairs phase, and an Ayn Rand phase (although I’d rather not think about that last one now). In that library were all the landmarks of my literary childhood.

On top of that, my mother works at the Library of Congress, a place she cheerily refers to as “the world’s largest repository of organized knowledge.” She’s one of the lucky few with check-out privileges, and when I was little she would occasionally bring me into the stacks — 530 miles of shelving that house 29 million books. I remember glancing through the shelves to find a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin printed in the 1890s, in Russian, or an obscure Japanese architecture magazine with an article about the Italian Futurists. It’s an amazing, cavernous place. And would you believe the librarians blared music while they reshelved?

Apocryphal stories about people like Malcolm X reading every book in the library (in his case, the prison library in Norfolk, Massachusetts) always gave me the sense that libraries are magical places where people who will one day run the world (or write about it) go to receive the wisdom of the ancients. The fact that Mary’s ferociously smart 9-year-old daughter, Annie, aspires to read every book in her school library only proves the point.

What is your favorite library or your favorite library memory? What did you get out of libraries that you might not have gotten elsewhere? Our favorite blogging librarian, Karen Schneider, told David that today’s librarians must be “spiritual advisors for information.” How should libraries adapt now that most people would rather google something than look it up? Are you worried about the future of libraries in the digital information age?

Update, 5/21/07 6:08pm

hurley was kind enough to point out that scottbenbow is not the only one who’s been angling for this show for some time now.

Long live the public library! Especially for kids!!! In our little town here in central MA we are having trouble getting it together to put up a huge addition to our little library which began as a private lending institution in 1792 and grew into a public institution by the 1880’s. Today it is the tiny library that it was a hundred years ago and it desperately needs updating. Will the town fight for it?

Is the library essential anymore or a luxury today?

I think a show devoted to libraries and how they are changing or have to change to survive, how important they are to us as a society would be a a great topic.

Potter, in a comment to Open Source, 12/6/05

I think a show focusing on the nature of libraries in the digital age would be fascinating. Some of the points brought up during the Google Print show touched on some of these issues, and I think it was clear that this is a deep topic worthy of exploration. How has the way we understand and access information changed? How does that impact the role of libraries, schools, and unversities and guardians and storehouses of knowledge?

tsackton, in a comment to Open Source, 12/6/05

Thanks guys.

Rick Prelinger

Founder, Prelinger Archives

Board President, Internet Archive

Paul Whitney

City Librarian, Vancouver Public Library

Bernard Margolis

President, Boston Public Library

Amanda McKeraghan

Director, Stevens County Rural Library District in Washington state

Extra Credit Reading

Michael Baldwin, Can Libraries Save Democracy?, Library Journal, October 15, 2002: “The American public library is the most important invention of our democratic society after the Constitution itself. Libraries can provide the social leverage to return America to a democratic destiny. We will be condemned by history and by ourselves if we allow democracy to perish. I’m no Tom Paine, but I’ll borrow his mantle for a moment. Now is the time for all good librarians to come to the aid of their country!”

Ron Miller, It’s Comforting to Know The Librarian is Still a Journalist’s Best Friend, by Ron Miller, May 8, 2007: “Honestly, I do most of my research online now, but remembering this chestnut of wisdom, I decided to ask the expert. She suggested I go to the University library, so I got in my car again, drove to the University library and spoke to the UMass research librarian, a fellow who looked very harsh sitting up in his chair, but smiled warmly as soon as I addressed him.”

Megan Shaw Prelinger, To Build a Library, Bad Subjects, April, 205: “Most libraries in educational and research institutions hold books in closed stacks. Closed stacks structure access to knowledge in a query-based format. In query-based access, users have to know what they are looking for in order to request it, in order to “find” it. In this system the process of discovery is channeled from one direct link to the next.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan, Siva in Chronicle of Higher Ed: A Risky Gamble with Google,, December 2, 2005: “It pains me to declare this: Google’s Library Project is a risky deal for libraries, researchers, academics, and the public in general. However, it’s actually not a bad deal for publishers and authors, despite their protestations.”

Phil Bowermaster, Library Conference, Day 2, The Speculist, May 9, 2007: “So we’ve got all these older people, showing up in libraries because of an extraordinary invention called retirement. Very recent – roughly 1900 did the idea of a pension-supported retirement emerge. Before that, you just became incapacitated. Often impoverished and then dead.”

Joshua Harris, The Room, via “When I came to a file marked ‘Lustful Thoughts,’ I felt a chill run through my body. I pulled the file out only an inch, not willing to test its size, and drew out a card. I shuddered at its detailed content. I felt sick to think that such a moment had been recorded. An almost animal rage broke on me. One thought dominated my mind: ‘No one must ever see these cards! No one must ever see this room! I have to destroy them!'”

Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum, Unshelved, Overdue Media.

LOLbrarians: “im in ur cattylog, makin up subj3ck hedinz.”

Marian the Librarian

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