Blog Post

Libraries Without Books?

Changes are coming to the Newport Beach (CA) Public Library. From the LA Times:

In a sign of the times, Newport Beach is considering closing the city's original library and replacing it with a community center that would offer all the same features except for the books.

Instead of a reference librarian, patrons would be greeted by a kiosk equipped with video-calling software that would allow them to speak with employees elsewhere. And books when ordered would be dropped off at a locker for pickup.

A great deal of the academic work I do deals with the ways that libraries (and extension services like bookmobiles) are important for the ways they spatially and affectively define communities in ways that exceed a simple catalog of the books on their shelves. Libraries are places where community is built (and often defined, in various ways, exclusively), where a shared experience is made possible not only of print but of a public space devoted to knowledge, information, and entertainment.
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But this development in Newport Beach, I hasten to say, is not at all what I have in mind. Libraries are unique and valuable "community center[s]," distinct from other kinds of community spaces (athletic facilities, city halls, etc.), in large part because of the books they hold--even if those books are not the entirety of the library's purpose or effects.
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We must insist that having a public institution--an infrastructure--designed to preserve, transmit, and facilitate the creation of information, even (or especially) information materialized in print, is still important. The particular practices and experiences of browsing the stacks have, I believe, a peculiar but important role to play in the construction of communities.
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 I spent the past week writing a conference paper that deals, in part, with the ways that the economic logic--and what Daniel Bell called the "social physics"--of efficiency found its way into definitions and defenses of librarianship in the mid-twentieth century.
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And we are still dealing with the effects of that Faustian compromise. From the LA Times again:
"Because of the downturn in the economy, people are looking for ways to provide services with less budget and less staff," said Audra Caplan, president of the Public Library Assn. "The theory is it's better to provide something rather than nothing."
Despite the way that the "social physics" of efficiency structures the ways it seems possible to think about the world does not mean we should so easily believe that it is the only way of determining value. Just because it is cheaper and easier to have a library without books does not mean that it is better.
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