A while back I was researching the New Haven Railroad’s Electrification project from the early 20th Century. One of the key references was a book written by a man named William Spencer Murray. The only copy that I could find in the world was in Yale University’s library.
After I started work at my last job, I was able through connections to obtain the book. The last time the book had been taken out was in the 1970’s. This book and it’s material have not shown up in the internet and like many other subject may never show up in the general knowledge base at all. With the passage of time, if we are not careful, something crucial may be lost. Yet libraries seem to be determined to diminish there holdings to become more “relevant.”
I think that the problems started with the homeless activism back in the late 1970’s. The people that had been released onto the streets by some well meaning advocates had become an epidemic and were seen by many as victims of the ills of society. They were victims, but of poor government choices. In any case there they were, looking for a warm public space and there were the libraries. So they started to congregate there and that drove people away.
Then there were the computers that were going to change everything. Libraries started to become places where there were banks of computers rather than books. The idea of a media center became more Important than the library’s function to store and dispense knowledge. And the books started to go. Especially the slow circulators, like the Murray book.
The problem with that is that old books have a different perspective than the perspective that we have today. Sometimes its valuable to just be able to go and find the treasures that may exist in a library. There’s also the problem of what happens when something is not digitized or just not digitized well. Any search in Google books cam be frustrating because the scanning was done rapidly, the text can be hard to read and all to often important fold outs are scanned in folded form or gone all together. I can’t count the number of time that I wanted the real book in my hands.
Finally, when a library loses it’s real purpose, we all lose. When I was growing up, the library was a special place, a place where I could go treasure hunting and get away from a world that somehow, I just didn’t fit into much of the time. It was a place where I could explore things that I couldn’t reach. And I could bring those treasures home and enjoy them. The library was where I discovered science fiction and Hornblower. Where I found a kid winning a space suit in a contest and pirates on the Spanish Main. Where I was scared and enlightened. Makerspaces are wonderful things and we need them, but the library should be a place where we go to discover, not a hobby space. We’ve lost our way somehow.