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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.

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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Comment Preferences

  •  Republished to (7+ / 0-)

    Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter

    thanks for posting.

  •  I live in two towns. (7+ / 0-)

    The library in Georgia has recently expanded in size and is well attented by readers, computer users and borrowers of books. Efforts to set up a regionally administered entity have foundered on the fact that a martionette, rather than a book lover was hired to direct. So, our county is severing connections, no doubt to the delight of the Friends of the Library, who reacted poorly to being told to hand over the funds they raised and let the administrator spend them.

    The town library in New Hampshire has been housed in a shopping mall storefront, considered totally inadequate. Now a new facility is being built incorporating a donated building on a convenient location. The citizens approved a bond to fund the building.
    The new library in an adjacent city is the pride of the greens, energy efficient and with space for public meetings. All communities seem to hunger for meeting spaces that aren't controlled by religious or ideologically directed groups.
    I suspect the big improvement was getting rid of the need to remain silent in the library. People need to talk about what they read. Book stores that encourage talking are a big hit.

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Mon Feb 18, 2013 at 10:07:41 AM PST

    •  I've lived up and down the East Coast, (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Oaktown Girl, hannah

      from Miami to ME. In the South, libraries and education aren't really considered important. Granted my library is well-stocked (albeit with a lot more Christian books than you'd see up North), but it sin't the norm. Thje ones in FL either didn't exist or stank.  In New England we always had good libraries--event iny towns considered it a necessity.

      Regional system? In ME, they got me books from anywhere int he states that carried them--including a volume of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights that hadn't been bowdlerized for children.  Here I can get it from a library in the  county at best.  Not precisely the same sort of service. Their section on any religion but Christianity is non-existent at worst, or filled with books by Christians deploring non-Christian religions at best.  Politics is much the same--lots of Ann Coulter, witht he lone liberals being Colbert and Stewart. They are fair and balanced liek Faux News.

      I write this as a librarian who has worked in major library systems, as well as a user of smaller county and local ones.

      The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake.

      by irishwitch on Mon Feb 18, 2013 at 11:15:11 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  In our library, there is generally a quiet talking (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      hannah, carolanne

      rule, but not silence.

      There is a back reading room, where the silence rule is preserved depending on who is there.

      In fact, there is a layers of onion approach from the entrance to that so-called silent room.

      It works pretty well.


      "Daddy, every time a bell rings, a Libertaria­n picks up his Pan Am tickets for the Libertaria­n Paradise of East Somalia!"

      by unclebucky on Mon Feb 18, 2013 at 11:54:54 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Same (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      hannah, carolanne

      in Fairfax where the library is a major site for children, adults and teens due to the variety of events, but still it is a book oriented institution that people seem to desire even though computers are heavily used by all there.

  •  I've lived all over the southern tier of this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elfling, carolanne

    country, from Hampton Roads in VA to LA area in CA. By far, hands down, the best-stocked library I ever enjoyed was the one in Wichita, KS. I could get almost any CD or movie I wanted and there were so many branch locations that you didn't have to travel far to enjoy the library's treasures. I don't miss much from Wichita, but I definitely miss the library.

    The world is not interested in the storms you encountered, but did you bring in the ship.

    by Hanging Up My Tusks on Mon Feb 18, 2013 at 12:48:49 PM PST

  •  Greater San Diego has 66 library branches in (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    both city and county systems.  Both hours and hires have increased since the Crash of 2008. Roughly a branch for every fifty thousand folks.  Add  university, college, professional, museum and private libraries, and there's no excuse not to be a frequent cipher in usage statistics....

    No booster brochure writer, for sure, but I've always been pleased with the resources available here, both to borrow and purchase.    I can't lament changing tastes in media and subject either, as my family is the direct beneficiary of so many wonderful, slightly used books, cds and dvds withdrawn from the system.  Bought for a song, proceeds benefiting new purchases, concerts, lectures....

  •  Every Day Is Christmas at the Library (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You can get an arm full of presents just with a library card:  books, CDs, DVDs;  in some areas paintings, tools, seeds;  and just beginning to happen, 3D printing and maker spaces.

    Libraries are a miracle.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Mon Feb 18, 2013 at 03:44:11 PM PST

  •  library envy (0+ / 0-)

    I'm the librarian in a little Texas town near la frontera. This state does not value libraries (mine is a near-minimum-wage job) and we get nothing from the state except contempt and yearly budget cuts.
    Interesting to read here about the northern states where the library is a valued part of the social fabric...

  •  Libraries Can't Be Book Warehouses Anymore (0+ / 0-)

    I have had a library card in one town or another for over 50 years. My kids each got theirs for their 5th birthdays. One of the first things we do in a new town is get a library card.

    I have been a library trustee in my small town Boston ex-urb for 12 years. For that, I have been discussing libraries and their future every month for 12 years.

    First, let's separate the building from the stuff inside it.

    Libraries are a public space. In small towns like mine, the only truly public space. Other than the local coffee shop.

    People come to attend concerts, author readings, book clubs, meetings, workshops, read the paper, or just sit. To meet after school for tutoring, studying, or small group work; or play. We have the only public restrooms downtown.

    These activities were the demise of the quiet as a tomb library I remember from the 1960s. No more is about being quiet. Not everyone likes that, and we've had to invest in interior doors and rearrange space to minimize the noise in the building. But in the future, a busy library will be a noisier library; and that's a good thing.

    We have well over 100,000 visitors a year, many of them from other towns, which makes the library an economic engine for downtown. That's a lot of foot traffic. We circulate over 200,000 items, one of the highest for a town our size statewide. But most of the people who walk through the door don't check anything out.

    From infants to the elderly, everyone in town is welcome. We have programming for each age level. That's important, and that makes the library something the whole town supports. It's a third rail at budget time.

    The stuff. The stuff in the building is changing. So is how we arrange it and present it to the public.

    The media and language libraries use has been changing since papyrus and hieroglyphics.  When I was a kid Pluto was a planet, and the library had books, magazines, and newspapers - period. And all printed on paper. All neatly stacked on 6 foot high shelves according to  Mr. Dewey's decimal system.

    There were  - also printed - reference materials as well. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauri. My hometown library even had most (every?) phonebook in the country.

    Alas, it's not that simple anymore. We have books on tape, cd, and dvd; we have music and video on tape, cd, and dvd. We have electronic books, and more coming. We have online databases.

    Accessing the catalog online was a huge step in making the library more accessible to people, even if they need to use the library computers to do so. Electronic books and online databases will make the library a 24/7 operation, with information accessible anywhere, anytime. The library's collection and information will transcend the library' building.

    But we'll still have that stack of newspapers and magazines for the folks who like it, or need it, that way.

    Our technological planning and budgeting is as important as our physical collection planning and budgeting. And we need to plan the two together. We still need that stack of newspapers for our older patrons who like reading them that way, may not have a computer at home, or have other challenges to online access.

    The way we organize and present the collection is changing. We've worked to reduce shelf heights to improve site lines and make the space more open and inviting. We've moved shelving to create little niches and alcoves for people to just sit or small groups to work in - especially school kids. New shelving come with wheels so the staff can quickly alter the layout to meet changing needs. As the physical collection shrinks in the future we will free up even more shelf and floor space.

    And Mr. Dewey is facing scrutiny. Some libraries (notably Darrien, CT) are moving away from the decimal system. They are commingling their collections of books, other printed materials, and electronic media and shelving by broader themes.

    Take, for example, music. Bringing together the music collection, books on music, musician biographies, and sheet music might encourage patrons to dig a little deeper into music. Same with film or history, or art. Or sports. Facilitating browsing and creating the possibility for serendipity.

    Mr. Dewey will still exist in the computer, but not on the shelf. I am skating out on to thin ice here, as we are only beginning to ponder the possibility - and us old geezers are trying to wrap our heads around it.

    How we do things. How the library looks and feels, and sounds, is changing. But the library's fundamental mission: to give the general public free access to information and culture, and to be a public space, remains unchanged.

    Peace on Earth was all it said.

    by BobBlueMass on Mon Feb 18, 2013 at 03:56:41 PM PST

  •  On media preservation...must thank the bees (0+ / 0-)

    for their wax, the sheep for their vellum, etc.    

  •  Thanks for this diary. (0+ / 0-)

    My local library isn't large, but it's almost always bustling. My spirits get a lift when I go there - such a variety of people of all ages and interests. It used to be a house, albeit a very large one, and when it was expanded, it kept the original "bones" of the house in place.

    It's also part of a countywide library system, so if my library doesn't have a particular book, but another one within the county does, I can place it on hold and it will be delivered in just a few days. The 2 research librarians are wonderfully helpful.

    Thankfully, we voters have never turned down funding. I don't think anyone would consider it, even if libraries aren't their "thing." It's recognized as vital to the community and I'm so grateful for that.

    Other libraries probably do this, but I wasn't aware of books for the homebound until I got involved with my library. It's a wonderful service. And yes, as someone pointed out, you can get an armful of Christmas presents and other gifts at a library!

  •  There are hardly any books in our SLCITH LIBRARIES (0+ / 0-)

    I go on line to search for a book and then order it as SLC ships books between locations.

    the buildings are really nice though.  Just kind of empty and very right wing leaning.

     Was told one book I wanted had to be ordered from OUT OF STATE.

    What?  are stAtes now sharing books?

    I pay $90 a yr on my real estate taxes for Library.  that's a lot of revenue collectively from SLC.  what do they do with all that money?

    It's difficult to be happy knowing so many suffer. We must unite.

    by War on Error on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 08:45:59 PM PST

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