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The Museum Of Libraries

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Libraries today are endangered. The news is filled with constant stories of library closings and cutbacks. At the same time, we’re living an era of unprecedented access to information. As I write this, it’s almost midnight and, lets face it, even if a library near me were open right now, I probably shouldn’t be driving. But sitting right here, I can find out the gross weight of the 2002 sardine catch (about 22 million tonnes) with just a couple minutes on a search engine. Everything’s different in a world that is constantly connected, and where information flows more or less freely to those who know how to access it.

Laura Miller writes today about Why Libraries Still Matter, but honestly I think she misses the point. As far as I can tell, her argument is that Libraries are keepers of history, and history is more than just words on a page. She writes:

Also, not everything a library collects is a scannable book or document. The NYPL’s anniversary exhibit includes such treasures of print culture as a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of the Declaration of Independence written in Thomas Jefferson’s hand, and a first quarto edition of “King Lear.” It also features the personal effects of writers, such as Jack Kerouac’s rolling papers, harmonica and Valium box (with notes scribbled on it).

I’ve always found the material presence of such objects quietly thrilling. They remind me that literary figures, who sometimes seem so Olympian, also muddle through an ordinary human existence like all the rest of us.

She’s right, of course. These objects are a part of our history, and provide important context to works that we sometimes absentmindedly imagine appearing ex nihilo into our collective consciousness.

This brings up the fact that libraries serve multiple functions. Miller is extolling the library’s role as caretaker of precious artifacts from our cultural heritage. Of course, we already have an institution who collects objects as a way of adding to our understanding of history. It’s called a museum, right? So why should this be responsibility be split between two different spaces? How do we decide what goes into a library, and what goes in a museum? Miller isn’t clear. She does broach the topic when she writes:

Unlike the Dickens and Brontë memorabilia, which could just as easily be enshrined elsewhere, these are once-mundane objects you’d never find in a museum, but they’re an important part of our written culture and well worth saving.

The problem here is that it’s not true that you would never find such mundane objects in a museum. In fact, there are museums dedicated to practically any aspect of human life, thought, or endeavor that you could imagine. Last year MoMA had a long running exhibit about post-War kitchen design. If that’s not up your ally you can travel to Indiana, PA for the Jimmy Stewart Museum.

The point is that I’m sure that you could find a reputable museum to house Jack Kerouac’s rolling papers and harmonica. In a sense, though, we have. You can look at large, metropolitan libraries as being simply museums that allow you to touch, man handle, and even take home (some of) the objects. Lets call this the object oriented view of libraries. In this view, the important aspect of the library is the objects within. Whether it be the physical books, or the displayed items, or the public computer terminals.

Libraries, though, aren’t the only game in town when it comes to holding physical objects for safe keeping. I wouldn’t even say they’re the best. I might be biased after dating a librarian for the last couple of years, but I honestly think that the true value of a library, the part that is worth cultivating, is in what you could call the curation oriented view of a library’s service.

You have many ways to interact with information. I have more information at my fingertips than I could absorb in a lifetime. But if I just sit randomly Googeling most of what I get is background noise. A good library system should not care whether you’re looking in a dead-tree book, an ebook, or a blog post. It’s mission should be to act as a filter of sorts. The library can help you make sense of a chaotic world. And that’s something that everyone can use sometimes. Don’t think because you’re aware of all internet traditions that you can’t find something to take advantage of there.

So will we see these two functions grow farther apart? Or will they start to blur together? In the future, maybe we’ll see libraries become more like museums, with a reference desk pushed in the back behind a display of Judy Garland’s potato chip collection. That wouldn’t surprise me, but it would be a shame. Computers are great at gving you information you want, but so far none of them can give you what you need.

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