Scent of a library

It happened slowly, in a way that I barely noticed. I used to spend time each week at the library, researching projects for work. When I had occasion, I especially liked roaming through the stacks, surrounded by all those books.

The sweet musty smell of old bindings, of pages barely touched in a decade, the faded lettering on the covers - the place couldn't have been more appealing. No wonder people pepper their homes with vintage editions - it's a way to simulate aspects of a library under one's own roof.

In a quite different way, I had begun to do that on my own. Soon after going online several years back, I started to displace my need for the library. If I wanted to learn about, say, the history of wheat, or the origins of currency, I would click onto one of many search engines from home, and find a source. Never mind that the source might be in Portuguese, and my search for "currency" might provide data on "ocean currents." Such inefficiences seemed a small price to pay for so much convenience.

In fact, home access to the Internet has saved countless people innumerable hours at the library. We accomplish more, in less time, sitting at our own computers. We can then print out the documents we need - even at 2 a.m.

All of which is decidedly a mixed blessing. It's nice not to rush to the library by a certain hour. But the notion that one could actually replace a library with search engines is, of course, foolish. There is no search engine that provides the scent and texture of a library, the array of bodies poised in the act of reading, or live assistants who can answer questions in the moment. Put plainly, search engines are databases that have no soul or sense of place. To equate them with libraries ignores the role of community.

Nor is that "community" some squishy, amorphous idea. Libraries are one of the great civic institutions - they exist in the public interest, for the public good. And they're remarkably democratic. For all the obscure, highfalutin knowledge they often contain, they welcome everyone - scholars and sleepers, researchers and newspaper readers.

They may be the one place where students and senior citizens are equally present and accounted for.

Then, too, there's the mannerly tone inside. Libraries are thoughtful places - literally, places where people go to think. People move about carefully, mindful not to disturb others. Quiet is the norm, consideration expected. Those facts, raised to an institutional level, place libraries in a class by themselves. Where else do such courtesies prevail, without enforcement, on such a broad scale?

Nor should we underestimate the cumulative effect of all this. Walking into a library, one sometimes senses the sheer force of focused energy - of countless individuals doggedly researching one thing or another. It's hard to sit among them and be unmoved to read, or look something up, or otherwise follow their lead.

On balance, I enjoy the easy access that search engines provide and the convenience that goes along with it. Still, I miss the library. Of course, there are countless others who now visit their libraries for the exact reason I don't: Lacking Internet access at home, they go to the library to go online. While they're at it, I hope they spend some time roaming the stacks.

Joan Silverman is a freelance writer.

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