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    Gillian Tett's article in the Financial Times of February 16th ("Library books are on
borrowed time") reviews some of the challenges facing libraries today.  
We should recall that libraries have been of great utility in all the
major civilizations since the Egyptians, Sumerians and Chinese emerged
 from prehistory.  While debates swirl about the nature of literacy
among the Indus and Peruvian civilizations, it is clear that books were
central to learning among the Mayans and Aztec.  Ernst Posner's
Archives of the Ancient World and G.R. Driver's Semitic Writing trace
the advance of reading and libraries from Sumer to Greece and Rome.  We
know that the libraries of Carthage contained the records of the most
ancient voyages of the Phoenicians, whose details are now lost, though
the books were given by the Romans to their allies the African allies
King Jurgutha & King Juba.  

    Julius Caesar established the first free
public libraries in Rome and these were added to by later emperors and
benefactors.  Libraries functioned in the Roman empire as centers of
business and learning for another 500 years until the collapse of Roman
order. C.E. Boyd (Public Libraries and Literary Culture in Ancient Rome, 1915) describes how the libraries of the classical Roman period were used
by the public and how they were designed.
 A thousand years passed before libraries again appeared in
Europe in the Renaissance.
    While Dr. Tett cites authorities who argue books and libraries are
passe, we see them appear and disappear  in human history as change
challenges societies in various forms.  It is unlikely, however, that
many books produced on electronic platforms would survive a social
cataclysm similar to the fall of Rome.  Books survive chaos due to
their popularity and numbers.  One can hardly imagine someone being
able to "read" a kindle in the 23rd century after a social collapse, it
would be like today trying to read a pre-Columbian quipu or  an IBM
punch card or floppy disk.  While technology changes our desire to
transfer knowledge to future generations who will be in need of past
wisdom will not change. Philip Pettifor (of Libri) has argued that
libraries have been forced over the past two decades to become social
welfare institutions and not just places where books can be read or
lent.  Instead they are places for the homeless, the unemployed,
disabled and babysitters for children whose parents both work among a
variety of other duties they are forced to provide for declining other
social services and budget choices of cash strapped  working and middle
class families across Europe and America.   Also, sadly, the hubris of
every generation to reject the past for the new seems also to be
unchanging.  Libraries today are suffering more do to budget cuts than
a lack of interest, and closing them is short sighted and detrimental
to the development of habits of youth for knowledge.

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Originally posted to niccolo caldararo on Mon Feb 18, 2013 at 09:38 AM PST.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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