On physical books and horses
I originally envisioned this post as a two-part brain dump, but then I realized that the type of people interested in libraries are also the type of people who aren't bothered by long text. So this post will be longer than usual.
Now that we are almost a quarter into the 21st century it is perhaps time to have the talk: what do we do with our public libraries?
I'd like to start by pointing out that I love libraries. I love the feeling of being surrounded by books, picking one of them at random and reading a couple pages -- sometimes I put the book back after a few seconds, and sometimes I rush to the nearest chair and remain there until it's dark outside. Having said that, I also realize that I'm only focusing on what libraries are instead of what they could be.
Part I: books
Physical books are awesome: paper is relatively inexpensive, lasts a long time, doesn't hurt your eyes, can survive some natural disasters, requires no electricity, an can be easily recycled if a book is really bad. Having said that, paper is also heavy, flammable, and duplicating its content takes work.
A book's physicality is both its blessing and its curse. The New York Society Library acquires 4800 books a year, meaning that they also need a plan for getting rid of 4800 books a year. What happens to those books is a touchy subject. History is full of brilliant artists who didn't get recognized during their time, but 90% of all books are crap. How to strike a balance between both extremes is a full-time job.
I am a fan of physical books. But I wouldn't be honest if I didn't consider that maybe I like them just because that's what I grew up with, the same way my dad's coworkers rejected computers because a calculator was all they ever needed. And I am willing to bet that, about a hundred years ago, someone somewhere must have rejected cars for being cold and boring in comparison to the horse they brushed and cuddled every day.
It isn't hard to imagine a library without physical books. You would simply show up to the reception desk, pick a tablet (or bring your own), sit in one of the multiple available couches (with all the books gone, there's plenty room for them), and browse the virtual catalog. No need for queues, no book needs ever be thrown away, and you could even do it from the comfort of your house.
(Note that "don't throw anything away" sounds suspiciously similar to hoarding, but we won't get into that today)
But this is where I worry: why stop there? If you can check out books from anywhere, why even have a building? Just make it a webpage that everyone can access. All you need to do is add Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and you no longer need to worry about people making unauthorized copies and/or lending your books to non-members. It is also a very convenient way of getting rid of problematic books: one simple command and voilà!, the book is gone from every library in the country. And as a plus, you don't need to fight anymore with those pesky librarians who refuse to hand over library records without a court order.
Which touches on an important point: that if you were to invent the concept of a library today, you would be labeled a pirate and sued. A library is an inconvenient institution: it is not run for profit, it facilitates copyrighted material, and it provides access to dangerous ideas to anyone. If I were me, I would be scared of tinkering with such an important institution and risk breaking it forever.
Part II: activities
Whenever I think about what an ideal library would look like, I always come back to the same example: the Vancouver Public Library. If all you had was a VPL card and time, you could learn music theory, learn how to play an instrument (which you can borrow on the fourth floor), record a podcast with your progress in the recording booths, design an album cover in their computers (don't know how? there's a book for that), and eventually release your album. Not many other institution offer this much knowledge for free.
The VPL (and others like this, such as the Cologne Library) go straight to the core of a different concept of library: not a place to store books, but rather a place to explore ideas. And while in theory you could also do that with a virtual library, I wouldn't discount the power of moving your physical body somewhere. Once you are inside the library, a part of you knows that you are there with a purpose.
No one I know associates libraries with activities, but they definitely associate them with the idea of a safe, quiet place to study. Which is, once again, a blessing and a curse: the space you need for your activities is space you take away from the books. And just as important for this discussion, it is space: if you have tried to rent even a moderately sized empty room you'll know that it doesn't come cheap.
Perhaps I am conflating too many ideas. Perhaps the world doesn't needs a library-makerspace-coworking space. And yet, the idea of a Library as a "Temple of knowledge" is all my nerd brain ever wanted.
Part III: the Metaverse and Zoom meetings
This is the part where Mark Zuckerberg shows up and says "something something THE METAVERSE". And he could have a point: if you are not at least intrigued by the idea of reading a (virtual) book while sitting (virtually) in the Library of Babel you need to catch up. But until the day comes when we all wear Metaglasses (R) all the time, we could take about their little sibling the smartphone.
Have you tried working in a library in the past months? I have, and I tell you, it's a challenge. This was not a problem 4 years ago, when all I needed was fast internet and power for my notebook. But in a post-pandemic world where everyone and their dog want to rope me into Zoom meetings this is no longer enough: meetings require sound-proof cabins in short notice, and they are very scarce. The Staatsbibliothek Berlins has six such cabins for all of their members (split into 4 and 2 between its two buildings) and trust me, they are not even close to enough.
And so, the only people who can currently accept a phone call in a library are Olympic sprinters who can run down four flight of stairs in less time than it takes for a call to go to voicemail (ask me how I know this!). I imagine libraries will eventually adapt - if anything, those six cabins in the StaaBi did come from somewhere. But again, each one of those cabins takes away space from "regular" book readers, who may argue that libraries are not WeWork and that I should go somewhere else.
I believe books will still be an integral part of our daily lives way into the 22nd century and further. Sure, eventually all new books will be digitized and nothing will be lost ever again, but the value of holding a book in your hands cannot be matched. And in a time when sharing is no longer caring, I am not counting on any better replacement coming anytime soon.
I love my local library - I like the small ones, I like the big ones, and I definitely like the VPL. And precisely because I like them I can't stop wondering whether I'm the old guy who complains about cars while brushing his horse. But what does the future of the library look like? Is it in the comfort of my home? Is it in my pocket? Is it inside incredibly expensive VR glasses? Or is the future of my library the exact same place where it was the last couple hundred years? Sure, sometimes one of them catches fire, but doesn't everything? And it's not like we can't just rebuild them. Lucky for us, manuscripts don't burn.