Leave the Books Alone


May 20, 2005


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It was my good fortune as a child that the local library was just a couple blocks from my elementary school. Once a week, starting in the second or third grade, our teacher would march us past the row of shops, and to the land of books. In my memory it is a brick and Tudor structure, one story, set back on a shady corner lot. Inside were long oak tables and lamps with green glass shades. The windows I think were leaded. It felt a little like a church, except more friendly and inviting.

The librarian was Mrs. Leif, who kept her glasses on a cord around her neck, and whose voice was magic. Mrs. Leif would sit at a window seat in the children’s section, and read to us. The boyhood biographies of American heroes. Charlotte’s Web. Thor, the Norse god. When she was done we were in a feeding frenzy. To this day I can remember where my favorites were — the biographies with the silhouette pictures and dense black type; the John R. Tunis baseball books; even Freddy the Pig, which was the first book of poetry I ever read and definitely the first that made me laugh.

I thought about that library when I read in the New York Times last week that the undergraduate library at the University of Texas is going book free. That’s a little like saying the UT football stadium is going football-free, etymologically at least; the word “library” comes directly from the Latin word for “book”. But words and meanings are kind of ages ago in the world of “software suites” and “digital learning laboratories,” which is how the advocates of the new bookless spaces refer to them.

This is the trend on college campuses, and it comes with the usual techno-sloganeering. “The library is not so much a space where books are held as where ideas are shared,” said Geneva Henry, executive director of the digital library initiative at Rice University in Houston. That does sound deep, though Ms. Henry might at least have looked up the word “library” before she uttered it. There also are assurances that books always will be “sacred”, as a librarian at Cornell put it. Officials at UT insisted that books weren’t disappearing, they were just going someplace else within the UT system.

Mrs. Leif never had to profess her allegiance to books. When librarians start doing so it makes one a little uneasy.

Let’s grant the obvious, which is that college students need access to the Web along with everyone else. You are reading this on the Web, so I can hardly argue against it (though I do have reservations despite myself.) That does not mean the Web should displace books, especially in libraries. And let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what’s going on here. The logic of book displacement is like the logic of real estate development; once it starts it feeds on itself.

Back in the ’90s, to much fanfare, San Francisco opened a new public library that was to integrate techno-modules into the realm of the book. Later it came out what integration really meant. To make room for the computers, the chief librarian had ordered that thousands of old volumes be carted off to the dump. He didn’t even bother to cull the books, and make sure no rare or out-of-print volumes were included. It was just so much clutter, so he ordered it away.

There are lots of reasons to be concerned about libraries without books, and one of them is freedom. Computers came with a lot of pretensions in that regard, but the dark side has come increasingly to light. Never has there been a more effective means of top-down control. When information is digitized then someone can observe every item you look at and every move you make. As the U.S. becomes a surveillance state, the creepy consequences become less and less hypothetical. The FBI is asking local libraries for records of who checked out certain books. If everything is on line it might not even have to ask.

The consequences are commercial as well as political. A digitized system is tailor made for proprietary control. The owner of “intellectual property” can impose conditions of use – including fees – that are not practical with books. A library can become a kind of informational cola machine. Insert your credit card, get a squirt of data. I have a hunch that somewhere out there among the “content providers”, this thought has occurred.

A book is a little like Huck Finn casting off down the river. It can follow a path that is both unpredictable and uncharted. I can put it in my backpack, read it under a tree, pass it along to a friend, sell it to a second hand bookstore, all without anyone having a clue except the immediate parties involved. In the software suites, someone always is watching, for whatever purpose. Habituate people to bookless spaces, moreover, and pretty soon they don’t even notice. People don’t miss what they don’t remember. This is a principle that dictators understand.

But there’s a more basic problem, and it goes to the nature of knowledge itself, and therefore to the nature of books themselves. Rhapsodists of book-free space tend to talk the language of data management. “More and more we’re delivering material to the user as opposed to the user coming into the library to get it,” a librarian at Cornell told the Times. Leave aside for a moment whether it is good to eliminate the special space the seeker goes to, as opposed to delivering the “material” to them. When librarians start thinking about their role as dispensers of “material” then aren’t they already on the path towards eliminating the books? The owner of a feedlot could have said exactly the same thing, upon the purchase of a delivery truck.

It’s pretty much what a computer would say if it could think and speak. Material. Data. Bits. The qualitative part – the affective part — falls away, and you are left with a mechanics of delivery. One bit is pretty much the same as another. And maybe that’s the problem – thinking in computer terms. Real learning is tactile and affective; it is not just a matter of blips going into the brain. Part comes from the presence of a teacher, if it is a teacher and not just an administrator of facts. Part too comes from settings, and this is where libraries and books come in.

As a child, entering the local library brought a sense of wonder. All those books to read. All that knowledge. The dignity of the setting conveyed the importance of the venture. This was something valued, special. The multitude of books on the shelves, with all the colors and shapes, reflected the teeming realm of knowledge itself. It was like a cathedral, in that it evoked an atmosphere, an attitude towards knowledge and reading. The outer space helped create a inner space that has stayed with me ever since.

This is what is lacking in the software suites – the texture and feel of knowledge, as opposed to the elaborate mechanics of delivery. There is a flattening of experience that is as impossible to quantify as it is to miss. I wonder if the epidemic of “mood disorders” among students is partly related to this draining of affect from the experience of learning. I wonder too if what is called “Attention Deficit Disorder” is related in part to the immersion of kids in the world of flickering cathode screens.

How could the environment of the mind not have some effect upon its nature? “This is a new generation, born with a chip,” Francis Maloy of Emory University, told the Times. “A student sends an e-mail at 2:00 A.M. and wonders by 8:00 a.m. why the professor hasn’t responded.” Must be a chemical imbalance. Give that young man some Ritalin. (For more see Todd Oppenheimer’s The Flickering Mind.)

I had an opportunity a while back to visit the stacks of the university library where I spent many hours as an undergraduate. The thing that hit me was the smell – dense, musty and rich with possibility. Smell rubs the lamp of memory, and in an instance I was back, wandering those endless rows of books, getting lost in forgotten studies and obscure journals, digging for gold and sometimes actually finding it.

Will students today, clicking mice in book-free spaces, have memories like that? Will their knowledge be connected to experiences that give it texture and depth? If not, I don’t think they will be the richer for it. By all means, create all the software suites you want. But librarian, leave the books alone.