Opinion

Restore the noble purpose of libraries

Focusing so much on their technology actually dumbs them down.

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Libraries were once a sacred secular space of silence and reverence – a place where one automatically lowered one's voice. As a direct heir to the Enlightenment, the establishment of libraries was a testament to the self-evident integrity of mankind, the belief that we all desire to find the truth through knowledge.

Librarians once framed our mission in those terms – before libraries became the noisy computer labs they now are, with their jingle of ringtones, clattering keyboards, and unquenchable printers. And we reference librarians had a higher, more dignified calling than merely changing the printer paper.

In some libraries today it is actually impossible to find any place quiet enough to simply read and study undisturbed. What I call the postmodern library – the library plus technology – deconstructs itself.

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Modern librarians who prioritize information over knowledge perpetuate a distraction from the real purpose of a library. A library facilitates the patient gathering of knowledge – whose acquisition is superior to almost every other endeavor. Religions have adapted to technology for the most part without being destroyed by it, so why can't libraries? It might not be too late.

Information on the Internet may come across as authoritative, but much of it is one giant Ponzi scheme, especially in the hands of the young, where it can become a counterfeit for the reading and memorization that true learning requires. Scholars are made through the quiet study of one chapter at a time. For that we need silence. We need to restore an appreciation for the close study of words.

Without that we are putting ourselves out of business. It should disturb us that fewer people are browsing the stacks, asking reference questions, or reading.

I went to my own public library the other day with my 11-year-old daughter and was horrified to see a television monitor running videos in the children's section – not a kid in the stacks and all the rest lined up to play games at the computers. It was a library that had gotten everything exactly wrong.

My once gentle profession has prostituted itself, aided by library schools, which, embarrassed even to call their graduates "librarians," now opt for the sexier term "information scientists."

It is a bid for status that doesn't work – from our patrons' point of view we are still people who change the printer paper and reboot the computer when it goes haywire. We're not scholars, of course, never that. A librarian is someone who just might be able to quote the Prologue to "The Canterbury Tales" in Middle English.

Once the captains of the information superhighway, librarians are now thumbing a ride into history.

Libraries are currently popular only because everything's free. And yet library budgets are shrinking (a litmus test of viability and patron support) and branch libraries are closing.

In focusing on access in all its forms and hoping for the best librarians have slowly stepped away from being readers or scholars, like their forebears in the Middle Ages who could recite whole books from memory. You cannot defend what you do not know. And you cannot know what you do not love.

As it happens, there may be some hope for libraries. There are reports of unique attempts to restore the inherent dignity of the library. At the community college library where I work, we do it one cup of coffee at a time.

Nearly three years ago I established Coffee Mondays, a new library service offering a cup of coffee free of charge to any student or professor who wanted one. It turned out to be work, but it was well worth it.

We take a humorous tone at Coffee Mondays – the coffee center is decorated with posters detailing interviews of me with Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt (fictitious, of course). The humor is human, and the result is humane. The library has been "personalized," as it is with the exhibits I help organize with our art department here, exhibits famous for being constructed on a shoestring budget.

Young people are drawn to these imaginative approaches. It is through that humane, humorous connection that we are trying to win back hearts and young minds to the library. At the coffee center, I am able to meet and talk with students about, oh, maybe Plato or Japanese Noh theater or the paintings of Jasper Johns. And that is exactly one of the blessings of a library.

Before librarians put themselves out of business one printout at a time, libraries must explore similar creative ways to engage the community without dumbing down their mission.

There is a way for libraries to uphold their noble purpose. They must carefully balance wants and needs of the community – they must stop being one-stop shopping centers.

William H. Wisner has been a librarian for 22 years. He is the author of "Whither the Postmodern Library?"

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