The Meaning of the Library

Libraries have been part of society going back to the ancient world, and they have prompted innumerable commentaries and debates about their mission and value. The Pew Research Center has issued yet another report on the role of libraries in our society (John Horrigan, Libraries at the Crossroads, September 15, 2015). Focusing on the role of public libraries, the report includes many familiar observations, emphasizing that “These findings highlight how this is a crossroads moment for libraries. The data paint a complex portrait of disruption and aspiration. There are relatively active constituents who hope libraries will maintain valuable legacy functions such as lending printed books. At the same time, there are those who support the idea that libraries should adapt to a world where more and more information lives in digital form, accessible anytime and anywhere.” The report asserts that there are two primary questions that need to be addressed, namely, what should be done with the printed book collections and what should happen with the physical buildings? You can read the report to see how Americans are viewing such issues. Needless to say, local public libraries are seen to be important resources that their loss would harm a community.

While such surveys are useful, and their frequency of publication provides useful benchmarks for understanding the role of libraries, I prefer historical and scholarly analyses of the meaning of the library, such as seen in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015). The diverse essays explore the efforts, through history, to build and sustain universal libraries, and the many failures that have resulted in this quest. The dozen essays, grouped into categories of historical explorations, the library in the imagination (such as film and literature), and the present and future status of the library, have been written by leading scholars such as Andrew Pettegree and Robert Darnton. These essays consider both some of the reasons why we continue to be so insecure about these institutions and why we should be reassured that they are not going away. Interesting comments abound, such as by Pettegree, the “book survives because it is an object of technological genius” (p. 87) and Robert Darnton, noting that after reading thousands of letters of a Swiss publisher, “I have come to appreciate the enormous complexity of the book industry in the eighteenth century” even as society, the economy, and culture continued to change (p. 97). The Pew report suggests that such turbulence continues, offering ways of supporting new roles to ensure the library’s continuance; while it is good to wrestle with such matters it is essential also to realize that we always have faced such matters. The library is more resilient than it seems in the face of often dire predictions about competition from the Web, e-publishers, and other such sources.

Some of the essays in the Crawford volume suggest the meaning of the archival function of libraries. Stephen Enniss contributes an essay about the sale and collecting of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes manuscripts, as well as reflecting on Emory’s acquisition of Salman Rushdie’s papers, a portion of which comes in digital form on disks. This leads Enniss also to grapple with the challenges of digital curation, as in the “literary culture of own time will survive as it has always survived, wherever there is that combination of vision, opportunity, and money. Addressing our present challenges will certainly require substantial investment and the best guidance of the profession working in collaboration with scholars and with writers themselves. It will also require a broad awareness of, and commitment to, the survival of our literary culture” (p. 233). Our success will not be complete; Enniss cautions, “we will not catch and hold onto everything. An archive is also a record of absences at the very brink of oblivion” (p. 234). It would be good to have a volume of similar essays on the meaning of the archive, but it is also useful to peruse volumes such as this one on the meaning of libraries (and we could add museums) also supporting some form of archival mission.

Some might be uneasy with the Crawford collection, since it meanders far and wide across the landscape of the library, past and present. However, there is a lot of interesting insights to be gained from its reading. Its range of coverage also suggests how critical libraries have been in society; the Pew report is merely a recent snapshot of why this continues to be the case.

 

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