Libraries as places to linger and mingle

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Recent news of the massive book digitization efforts at the Library of Congress and other major libraries has renewed public interest in the long-standing dream of a universal digital library. Proponents argue that digitization will do more than just expand public access to books; it will change the shape of human knowledge itself. As digital books supplant physical ones, they argue, fusty old hierarchies like the Dewey Decimal System will give way to the liberating pixie dust of Google searches. Books will mingle with blogs. And we will all become, in effect, each other's librarians.

But if the shift from physical to digital books is so inevitable, then why did public libraries break attendance records last year? Why did publishers produce 300,000 printed, bound books in 2004 (up 14 percent from the year before)? Despite the enormous volume of information already available online, we seem to keep gravitating back to the physical world of books and libraries. All of which raises the question: Is a library really just a collection of books?

Advocates of digital libraries often invoke the image of the Library at Alexandria as the archetypal universal library. This was, after all, the last time a civilization managed to gather all of its accumulated knowledge under one roof. But the real Alexandria was much more than a giant papyrus warehouse; it was more like a Greco-Roman think tank, built with great colonnades and wide open spaces designed to draw scholars together, giving them a place to work together, engage in dialogue and debate, and practice Aristotle's famous peripatetic method: meaning literally, to walk around. The 500,000-odd scrolls were certainly a big draw, but the library was more than a depository. It was a living, human institution.

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The great monastic libraries of medieval Europe, contrary to the popular stereotype, were not silent study halls for cloistered monks. They were noisy places where scribes, bookbinders and other artisans collaborated to create the astonishing illuminated manuscripts that flourished in the age before Gutenberg. Some visitors called them "houses of mumblers" because the monks liked to recite their texts out loud while they copied them. These, too, were living places, devoted not just to book preservation but to bringing scholars together to work with each other in the three-dimensional world.

Even in the silent reading rooms of our modern libraries, a kind of quiet collaboration takes place among readers, librarians, and authors. There is a tacit sense of community, and a reassuring solidity in the shared physical space that seems to provide an antidote to the specter of loneliness. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the emergence of the Internet has coincided with a doubling of public library attendance?

The current vision of the digital library rests on a deeply flawed assumption: that the function of libraries is to connect solitary readers with isolated texts. If that were so, then we could easily replace our libraries with book scanners, search engines, and laptops. And if the shape of human knowledge really rests in the Dewey Decimal System, then, well, we are surely in trouble.

Technologists have an unfortunate tendency to view the world in mechanistic terms, as a set of problems waiting to be solved. As a result, they often fixate easily on the most obvious and reducible problems - like retrieving a book from the stacks - while discounting the subtler and qualitative dimensions of human experience. We need books, yes, but somehow we also seem to need physical places to read them, together. This is why a collection of digital books is no more a library than a stack of paintings is a museum.

Alex Wright, a former Harvard librarian, is currently writing a book about the history of the information age.

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