The Wonder of the Library

Today there’s debate about the value of libraries in our all-electronic, all-Internet world. One blogger boldly declared that:

“Generation “C” (content) has no use for a library.”

How sad! He’s missed the very reason why libraries are essential. Commentators like him mistake the mere acquisition of information as the sole motive for those rows on rows of books. He elevates the value of speed in acquiring information as the greatest virtue for this Generation “C”. Thus, in the pursuit of speed, books are passe, relics of a bygone technology like scrolls or tablets, fatally flawed as too slow for contemporary users. Welcome to Google, blogs, and Twitter! Lightning fast and satisfying! It’s just what we need to solving personal and global problems.


Oh, I agree that one possible use of a library is in fact to locate information. But it is far more than that. If all a library is is a fat encyclopedia, then more power to Wikipedia! Who can beat real-time updates? Who can beat its breathtaking number of topics? But a library goes beyond that. It offers truly unique features for those who open their minds to possibilities.

What is a library then? A wonder!

When I enter a library, what I see are not rows of musty books. What I see is a vast sea of wonderful people–all attired in their Sunday best, all eager even anxious for me to meet them! I am beckoned to a thousand wonderful conversations with great minds, honed arguments, vivid images, endless experiences painted in language that embarks you on a journey of epic proportions! It’s a vast open conversation–fresh, intense, and at length each time.

In contrast, a, if not the, major defect of the Internet is in fact its awesome and awful variety. The millions of posts, blogs and articles suffer from an excruitiating range in quality from the sublime to the abysmally inane. Google fails miserably in trying to rank sites evenly across all topics. It’s hit or miss for years as you struggle to find voices worth paying attention to. Trying to find a good, complete picture on the Internet today on most topics is like trying to find a good, reliable source about the Rebellion in Star Wars by asking the riff-raff at the cantina on Tatooine.

Even when you find the good writers worth paying attention to on the Internet, they can be rushed for output…leaving thoughts dangling and incomplete. And as your tastes and interests expand, once again you have to begin again to dig and struggle to find new resources. Time and opportunity is lost with site after site as all too often there’s an closed-minded agenda to the writing, ill-concealed and irritating. Proper decorum is abandoned for in-your-face soundbites that might make for good Tweets and scream “pick me! pick me!” for the writer’s fifteen seconds of online fame.

And I won’t even touch the cesspool of most comments posted online. Full of vitrol and bias, this tidal wave of commentary on virtually every blog, posting or site comes from a seeming endless sea of lost souls looking to berate, twist the topic to their latest gripe or push their own agenda. This isn’t conversation, this is a tower of bigots and babblers with nothing to show for it. Who has time for that?

On the other hand, at the library, the conversations through books are focused, well-crafted, polished, and extended. (This last point is important because few human areas of interest can possibly be explored in soundbites.) There’s power in learning how great minds discover, explore, and resolve problems or take advantage of opportunities from start to finish.

Now add the second wonder of the library, one so lacking in the Internet, Serendipity. What a joy it is to discover a new line of thought from several books juxtaposed on a shelf! Exciting inventions–mental or physical–come from the serendipity of two previously unconnected ideas. Ideas that might just come from bumping into a book on a shelf while in passing or by its neighbor.

Sadly, there’s no easy path to serendipity on the web. Oh, StumbleUpon tries. But what happens when the sites you find in those links are still shabby and unkempt? Nascent and not fully baked? Brilliant but waayy too brief? Compound this when you try to use Google in some way to help, but it has a hard time offering up quality contrasting sites. So how does one get the more complete picture?

Our problems today are not FACT problems, they are PEOPLE problems. To solve them we need depth, not just breadth. We can’t appreciate and resolve people problems through short posts and Tweets or Wikipedia articles and “just the facts”. It takes conversation…many profound conversations with people who have resolved people problems before. Conversations we can have at libraries with the best minds. That’s the essence of the Library.

The power then of the Internet adds to the wonder of the Library, not subtracts from it. Together, they make much more effective conversations between us possible. And that’s what we need now.

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