Stone columns and solemn guardians, hardcover books protected by sheaves of plastic, dates and names in mismatched handwriting and red stamps on lined notecards, the hiss of low voices.
Perhaps this is what you think of when you think of libraries.
Or: You envision the neon green and airy, honeycomb architecture of the Seattle Public Library. Your mind jumps immediately to the media room on the third floor, or the lookout point lifting you high above the city, where you can watch pedestrian-flecks gather and scatter across 5th and Marion.
But where did you sign your first library card? One of those tiny branches, tucked into a small town alongside the post-office and fire-station with all of three fire-trucks? Do you remember escaping summer’s blanket of heat for the still, air-conditioned cool of the library to pick out your summer reading from the children’s section, counting to make sure you hadn’t gone over the seven- or ten-book limit?
The towering central branches of great cities and the diminutive, cluttered, one-story libraries of suburbs and small towns inhabit different worlds. They both serve essential functions in American society, but those more humble structures don’t have much in the way of grandeur, and they lack the evangelical quality that clings to libraries like the intimidating stone tomb in New York City, guarded by twin lions and an army of librarians. In the local branches, children’s clumsy, earnest illustrations of The Cat in the Hat or Willy Wonka cover the walls, rather than announcements of important authors who’ll be hosting readings.
Suburban libraries stand as monuments to some vague, long-dead Americana—low to the ground, worn and faded like Western saloons peopled by books, giggling children, and tired parents rather than cowboys. Maybe a few gray-haired patrons, looking on quietly. No sculptures, no well-regarded paintings or famous photographs on the walls; instead, posters for summer reading contests, arranged by grade, with prizes for reading 3, 5, even 10 books in 3 months. (I once received one of those prizes; a headband with bobbing antennae, coated in purple glitter, which I wore like laurels. I refused to take it off until it broke, just a few days later.)
We often think of monuments as cold and dead, erected in memory of events mostly forgotten. But libraries are monuments to something living and evolving through use. Circulation illustrates the motion of the library perfectly: the inhale and exhale of books lent and returned and the flow of books from floor to floor, stacked on rolling carts to be re-shelved, mimic the movements of a vast organism, pumping blood and carrying nutrients to various internal systems.
People also shape this particular monument. They check out books, hold meetings, bring in hordes of whisper-laughing children, or work at long tables, scuffed with use. They leave footprints in the carpet, gradually wearing down the floor; they leave their names inside the books they’ve read or movies they’ve watched, a trail of letters and impressions to memorialize themselves as part of the respiratory system of the library. Dust motes wafting in, leaving smudges and stamps behind as they trail out.
Libraries are changing; the world of digitization beckons. Text weaves itself more thoroughly into our daily lives as we lift information from the page and transform it into gigabytes, placing it in the care of infinite motion and hundreds of thousands of data streams. This sort of talk often generates understandable panic. Who doesn’t love the physicality of books: the smell of aging paper and fading print, or the weight of a hardback in your hands, unfamiliar to you but read by hundreds of others? Who doesn’t love the feeling of turning a page and knowing that somewhere someone else once flipped this same page? Shared history is important, particularly in cities. It tells us who we are. And it doesn’t seem to have the same weight when it’s floating around in the digital world.
Digitization modulates our understanding of public spaces. For so long, space and books alike have been physical creatures, and we do not know how to adjust to these new definitions of intangible space. So this shift toward digitization shifts the way we understand knowledge, information, and books. And this changes the way we understand libraries.
Libraries still represent the culture and values of a city, its desire to participate in the community of elite cities—of real cities, American cities, slippery as those labels are. These values reverberate throughout the frame and musculature and contents of a library, both steadfast and mobile. Values guide the choices both laws and librarians make about what books to provide, and determine the kinds of information deemed important and appropriate for the public. Even as libraries represent freedom of information, they create limits and guidelines for what we read and know. Libraries embody a contradiction between elitism and populism: between the desire to provide fair and total access to information to its population, and the desire to control which kinds of information have prestige.
But libraries are not simply storehouses for knowledge. They never have been. Suburban or urban, they are symbols of civic pride and expressions of community. They embody a puzzling blend of the popular and the obscure, and provide a practical space for study and conversation. They represent our most earnest desires and ideals, and our most pragmatic political assumptions. And so we need them to change as we change, but to stand tall and stable in times of instability. We need them to remind us that we love and value knowledge and education for everyone, not just those who can afford it. Libraries are monuments to the ideals we continue to work for, even when those ideals shift beneath our feet.