Sunday, 26 July 2015

Ode to the Public Library

One of my more interesting destinations, back then in the once upon a time era, used to be the book shop. A unique place that collected huge amounts of quality entertainment and enlightenment where I was allowed to pick and choose (and then pay) for the food that is going to be nourishing my thoughts next. 
For better or worse, that establishment is now more or less gone. Instead we have ourselves massive online shops and ebooks that allow us to read more and acquire our reading material faster and easier than ever. Yet there is no replacement for the book shop as a physical place of pilgrimage; or rather, do we really need such places of pilgrimage in the first place?
This post is here to argue that yes, we need them. Not for religious reasons, but rather for the simple fact that libraries still fulfil important jobs.

Read a fucking book tee, Red Emma's, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

We do not get to one of our local libraries as often as we used to, but when we do we notice we are not alone. We usually bump into people we know, people from our community, which – given my background as an immigrant – is a rare affair for me in Australia. Extrapolate from my own private experience and you should arrive at the conclusion that a public library seems to serve as some pillar of quality community interaction. A hub, of sorts, and a high quality one at that.
I will not go into other roles the contemporary library fills nowadays, like offering access to the Internet or free (but heavily DRMed) short term ebook rentals. These do not affect me in person.
Book wise, the number one benefit of the modern day library lies in its curation. Every time I visit the library I am exposed to the books on prominent display, as curated by the librarians. These happen to be a mix of popular hits with the local readership as well as books that the librarians find interesting. What’s notable about this curation is that, in contradiction to the one you get/got at a book shop, choices are not affected by marketing or sales or accounting departments, but rather by popular demand and the tastes/inclinations of the local librarian. As such, those curations happen to hit home with me and point me towards books I would have never otherwise heard of but will greatly enjoy reading much more than most other books recommended through market driven channels. You know, the channels that seem to forget books published five years ago or longer even exist.
That curation also works in a manner that no “recommended for you” page on Amazon can achieve. In an instant I am exposed to dozens of books (how important is that book cover!), and within seconds I know where my focus should go. Online, the story is significantly different; one can only focus on one book at a time, and the links between one book and another are rather limited in number. At the library I can drown myself in a hundred books a time and quickly identify 2-3 favourites. Amazon is still unable to achieve that.
You can dismiss the library if you wish. I argue that this service it’s giving me is of vast importance, particularly because the economics of our era have made this a time of very little free time. The time it takes to spare a look at books is sparse. On the other hand, our generation of over stimulated humans is well trained on how to deal with massive amounts of information, which means that we can easily digest the book display at our local library.
To put it another way: the institution of the local public library has survived the latest challenges imposed on it by technology, well enough to still offer vital services to the public. As it has always been, the public library is well worth community investment.


Image by Cory Doctorow, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

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