The View from What Used to Be the Library - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

The View from What Used to Be the Library

“I kind of feel like the captain of a cruise ship.”

That’s how I used to describe my job (last seen headed down the budget chipper) as head librarian for a small religious school. My duties weren’t much like a cruise ship captain’s at all—they wouldn’t even let me wear my semi-authentic embroidered sailor cap—but I meant the view, which was the best on campus. We occupied a large “footprint” (as it’s called nowadays) on the second floor of the campus center. We had south-facing windows and a wall of glass on the west, overlooking Medicine Lake (don’t drink the water without a doctor’s prescription).

Our building designers didn’t know much about libraries. Two major rules they taught me in library school were (1) put stuff on the ground level, for weight-bearing reasons, and (2) minimize the window space, because sunlight bleaches the book covers and turns pulp paper into powdered bouillon.

But hey, it’s hard to get libraries right. Harder now than ever before. The library/cruise ship seems (if I may waterboard a metaphor) to have lost its course.

The field of librarianship is changing. In fact, the main thing I took away from my time in library school was “Learn to be flexible! Think of your library as a Starbucks…or a homeless shelter!” Some schools have ditched libraries altogether. Pretty much everything libraries used to do (except for shushing you) is now available online. My own former library is gradually being transformed into a “multiuse space,” with some bookshelves grandfathered in.

Here’s where it would be easy to launch into a screed against this newfangled digital information age. Shelby Foote once said, “A university is just a group of buildings centered around a library.” This was, of course, pure idealism. I doubt any institution of higher learning has literally prioritized the library since that one in Alexandria burned down.

And who am I to complain? If digital media are the enemy, I’m Benedict Arnold.

Hunter Baker, dean of Arts and Sciences at Union University, is a longtime friend of mine. When I told him, years back, that I had no interest in owning an ebook reader, he took it as a challenge. On winning one of his many awards (I think it was the Order of the Garter, but my memory is fuzzy), he used some of the money to send me a Kindle.

I fell for it like a relativist for an ad hominem.

By nature I’m a Luddite, and a proud one. But I quickly found reasons to love my Kindle. I’ve always had trouble holding books open. Unless you break their spines (and I’d almost as soon break my own spine, or at least Hunter Baker’s, as a book’s), they want to fall shut. If your thumb gets tired and slips out, you lose your place. I like to read in bed, and this is a particular problem on the horizontal plane. But when I read an ebook on my Kindle, the page is right there, and I don’t even have to slip in an old Wendy’s receipt when I set it down for a minute. Also, my perpetual quest for cheap bookshelves (and space to put them) ceased.

The ebook reader is, it seems to me, a reincarnation of the ancient scroll. You spool through it rather than turn pages. It’s one of those cases where technical advances bring us back in a circle to old ideas. What made our modern, paged book (the technical term is “codex”) so appealing was that it made “exact scholarship” possible (I learned that from C.S. Lewis). Imagine having a pile of scrolls containing—somewhere —material you want to cite. To locate the exact quotes, you’ll have to roll through yards of papyri, and that’s tiring and very hard to bookmark (especially before the advent of Wendy’s receipts). The pages in a codex are a whole lot easier to search and retrieve from.

But the modern e-scroll has upgraded all this. You can bookmark it. On top of that, you can hold many large volumes in the memory (or in the cloud) and the thing never gets heavier. I know, I checked.

With all respect to Shelby Foote, who probably made his comment before ebooks existed (I can’t seem to find a date for it), that old library-centered university may not have been the ideal. Perhaps the old system was based on centralized power, elitism, and controlled access. Perhaps (and I’ll bet you’re going to tell me somebody else famously stated this long ago) the future will usher in an age of decentralized education, where getting a degree won’t cost more than the SpaceX project, and people with “less than respectable” opinions won’t be locked out.

As for me, I’ve given up cruise ships. I’m gonna be a pirate.

Lars Walker is the author of several novels, including Death’s Door and The Year of the Warrior. He also translates works from Norwegian, such as Viking Legacy. Lars blogs at Brandywine Books.

Image by Ciprian Boiciuc via Unsplash.

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