The Bookless Library

They are, in their very different ways, monuments of American civilization. The first is a building: a grand, beautiful Beaux-Arts structure of marble and stone occupying two blocks’ worth of Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. The second is a delicate concoction of metal, plastic, and glass, just four and a half inches long, barely a third of an inch thick, and weighing five ounces. The first is the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the main branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL). The second is an iPhone. Yet despite their obvious differences, for many people today they serve the same purpose: to read books. And in a development that even just thirty years ago would have seemed like the most absurd science fiction, there are now far more books available, far more quickly, on the iPhone than in the New York Public Library.

It has been clear for some time now that this development would pose one of the greatest challenges that modern libraries—from institutions like the NYPL on down—have ever encountered. Put bluntly, one of their core functions now faces the prospect of obsolescence. What role will libraries have when patrons no longer need to go to them to consult or to borrow books?

 

Less than twenty years ago Nicholson Baker could lament, in an eloquent New Yorker article, the disappearance of physical card catalogues from libraries. (Among other things, he criticized electronic catalogues for their “neolithic screen displays and excruciatingly slow retrieval times,” as if the technology would never improve.) But how many readers are still troubled, in any serious way, by the disappearance of those old catalogues? (Recently the Yale University library unceremoniously junked its old card catalogue drawers, filling a large dumpster with them.)

 

The Passive Voice Blog

Our school library does not have a card catalogue.

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1 Comment

  1. There seems to a be misconception that libraries are becoming obsolete, and I think that idea comes from the assumption that libraries are silent places that house books. Libraries are much more than that. In addition to print items, libraries now offer downloadable books for your E reader, as well as audiobooks and DVDs. Unlike amazon.com and iTunes, libraries’ offerings are available free of charge. Libraries also serve as community centers where classes, discussions, lectures, meetings and yes, even parties, are held. If you’re wondering, yes, I am a librarian so the subject of libraries is one that is dear to my heart (and my bank account), but the assumption that just because your iPhone can hold more books than some libraries means libraries are becoming obsolete is not necessarily true.

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