Another day. Another trip back to the library with another overdue library book. Another fine. Another payment. My overdue library book fines currently stands at slightly more (and grows slightly faster) than what the USA is investing in Iraq. I’m not mocking them, after all it’s nearly the 4th of July – and rocket’s red glare or not, it’s just a monumental figure; and when you tease out the amounts on a per state basis it’s astounding. I guess the people can do without better libraries.
I was wondering today if libraries are an idea who’s time has gone. I can understand how Demetrius of Phaleron got the first library together, and how Ptolemy III is the patron saint of library book borrowers – he borrowed them, copied them, and then sent the copies back and kept the originals. I reckon he’d pay less fines on the books he borrowed back then (and the amount compounded through to today) than I do each week. Zenodotus of Ephesus was the first librarian, chosen, I believe because alphabetically speaking he was last on the list. I imagine he wore a twin-set and pearls, and sensible brogues. One of the later librarians, Eratosthenes (275-194 B.C.E), went on to invent the 365.25 day year, which meant every four years they could slip in an extra day’s overdue fine. Brilliant! He also came up with 44 constellations, which meant for the first time horoscopes could be used in library newsletters. The only thing missing in the librarian’s repertoire was chocolate, however Eratosthenes even got close to that conceptually at least, when he came up with the sensational idea that he could get to India by sailing west from Spain. And that would’ve meant stopping off in Mexico on the way, home of hot chocolate. If only librarians were that perky today. Shht! Shush!
So, is library an idea that has outlived its time?
Once, when there were very limited numbers of very limited editions it made good sense to share books, even steal them. It should come as no surprise that the first library was founded in the same country that had a thriving stationery export trade. It made sense to promote the concept of books and learning to promote the usage of all that surplus papyrus. Eventually, Gutenberg came along, Luther gave everyone a hymn book and the next thing it’d download this, free porn, spam, and the rest of the drama. We don’t ‘need’ libraries simply to be the repository of knowledge, because we can get it on the web, or from Amazon, or we can get a blog and write what we like. So, I don’t think we need libraries for a distribution of knowledge, nor as a shelter for the last member of an endangered species of knowledge. That’s an outmoded idea.
What we do need libraries for, I believe, is to allow for collisions of new ideas. Let’s say I wander into the library, and strolling along the book shelves I see titles and ideas and suddenly I’m like Proust dipping a cookie in a cup of tea and a memory and a new idea arrive and there’s some one to talk to as well, maybe, or that Chinese chick who seems to just go to the library to txt someone… it’s the vibe – which, with the best will in the world, is not regenerated at Amazon, Project Gutenberg, or Wikipedia; bless them all.
Libraries should do more to foster interaction between people – the currency of today is not so much in books – they’re cheaply available. The truly rare and precious jewels in our society today are few articulate thinkers – communicators willing to share their thoughts and ideas. We genuinely don’t need yet another dreary cricketer’s biography; catalogued and shelved. Libraries, as rest home for elderly books, is an outmoded idea. This recent trend towards adding other media adds next to nothing of significant value. Making books available for poor people is patronising – it’d be better to make poor people less poor so they can buy their own books. Storytime for kids with vile pink photocopy paper and the use of ‘z’ as in ‘kidz’ is just dull. Crusty. It’s time libraries were re-thought, re-conceptualised, reinvented – from the basement stacks up.
Goodness knows, I’ve funded them enough.