Where Do Libraries Go To Die?

A depressing story from the New York Times on the effects of the digital revolution on libraries. The piece tries hard to be optimistic in places but concludes on this darkly comedic note:

“Does anybody like books?” Ms. Rosalia asked. Several students stared blankly. The Russians, who spoke some English, shook their heads.

So Ms. Rosalia pulled up the home site for Teen People magazine, and Katsiaryna Dziatlouskaya, 13, immediately recognized a photograph of Cameron Diaz. Ms. Rosalia knew she had made a connection.

“You can read magazines, newspapers, pictures, computer programs, Web sites,” Ms. Rosalia said. “You can read anything you like to, but you have to read. Is that a deal?”

There’s a necessary slipperiness to the term “read” in the last paragraph. Few of Rosalia’s students, in the end, will do anything that resembles a traditional understanding of “reading,” which, speaking generally, involves the interaction of the mind with text that proceeds in a linear, sensible construction such that one can do something largely alien to web-browsing today, namely, what is commonly called “thinking.”  (Don’t worry if it sounds unfamiliar–people used to do it way back when.)

I feel for librarians. This is a tough age. Trained to share a passion for one of the sweetest specimens of common grace, books, today many librarians find themselves as little more than Internet monitors, reduced to pulling up pages of vacuous celebrities to kindle even the slightest spark of interest in their students. This spark, of course, cannot possibly last for more time than it takes a synapse to fire. The librarian–what does that term even mean in this digital age?–is thus a mere custodian of the hyper-short attention spans of her students. Ironically, she was trained to be the very opposite, to be one of the few voices in youth culture that urges “reading” and “thinking”–technical terms, I know–on youth.

It is not a good sign for a society when children have no interest in books and care only for celebrities, twittering, texting, Facebook, movies, and so on. We are, I think, producing a stupid society. Our children are going to be dumber and dumber as times goes on, and it is no one’s fault but our own. So you heard it here: unless something miraculous happens, our children are going to be unmotivated, uninteresting, boring, and dumb, and parents and a ridiculous education culture are to blame.

Where do libraries go to die? I suppose that at some point, they morph into email-checking stations, and Teen People hotspots, and go quietly in the night, the riches of literary culture in their multi-century glory fading without so much of a ringtone to mark them.

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  • Maybe the video arcade? Gaming, especially video gaming has been all the rage in libraries the past couple of years as libraries desperately try to get the attention of teens and young adults.

    I’m not sure academic libraries are faring much better. The important thing (IMHO) is not saving libraries per se, but saving the culture of reading carefully and thinking critically and creatively. We can not let research become simply copying and pasting marginally related material from Google’s database of 7 million books.

    -Matt (a librarian at TEDS)

  • Donna Strachan

    Indeed it is discouraging, at times, to be a librarian these days but personally speaking, I’m not giving up! I still have students who enjoy reading and it is always a highlight of my day when I can help a young person connect with the “just right” book….and have that same student return the book two weeks later with a “thanks, that was a great book. Do you have anything else like it?”
    —from Owen’s mother, a librarian