What is a library?

I wanted to stand up and cheer when I read Joe Hardenbrook’s “Little Rant on Little Free Libraries.”  “A handcrafted box of books – no matter how lovely (and many are!) – is not a library. It’s an open bookdrop.  A library is more than just that.”  Yes!  He perfectly captured the unease I felt when two of my colleagues proposed creating a little free library in Davidson.  It’s not a library.  And Davidson already has a great public library.

A little box of books is not a library, but is size the defining characteristic?  Rebecca Schuman, an education columnist for Slate, asked, in her article “Save Our Stacks,” “If a college library moves 170,000 of its books to storage, to make room for sumptuous new administrative offices—which is happening at Maine’s Colby College—does it still count as a library?”  Let’s see…according to Oberlin Group data, Colby has over 450,000 volumes.  After 170,000 of them have been taken to offsite storage, there will still be 280,000 books in the library.  That’s roughly twice the volumes held by the library at the last college I served before coming to Davidson.  If 280,000 books isn’t enough to constitute a real library, that college is deluding itself, and many others are, too.

Schuman further asserted that libraries full of stacks must be preserved because “books, simply as props that happen also to be quite useful if you open them up, are the best—perhaps the only—bastions of contemplative intellectual space in the world.”  From me, this earned a raspberry, not a cheer.  I’m offended by the notion of books as props.  This is not what Ranganathan was talking about when he said books are for use.  I couldn’t help thinking of bookshelf wallpaper:  wow!  You can have an entire wall that looks like books, without worrying about floor loading, and you’ll never have to dust!

Schuman went on and on in this vein, finishing her article with “This is, then, one way in which books are far from obsolete: They are the best intellectual chaperones money can buy, both the creators and the preservers of the contemplative space that every university needs if it’s not to turn fully into a strip mall with frats. Yes, it is expensive to house a robust, accessible collection of what will soon be a forgotten format. But it would be more expensive to come up with an adequate replacement that still had the same irreplaceable effect on students—so expensive and involved, in fact, that it wouldn’t be worth doing at all.”

There is no doubt that, for some students and faculty (not all), rows of books convey scholarship and seriousness, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only things that can create an intellectual atmosphere.  Critical thinking, it seems, flies out the window when libraries try to shrink the footprint of their collections.  People are reduced to making arguments like Schuman’s:  it doesn’t matter if no one’s actually using these books; they look smart!  One of the things academics are trained to do is challenge sentimentality.  It would be refreshing to see that skill applied in cases like Colby’s.

Hardenbrook finished his blog by listing what he sees as the most important characteristics of a library:

  •     a place both physical and virtual
  •     a place to get help
  •     a place to get information
  •     a place to collaborate
  •     a place to learn
  •     a place to socialize

I’m not sure I think that’s a complete list, but it’s a good start.  I’m particularly interested in the “place to learn” part and in applying Barr and Tagg’s question (“What would you do differently if you put learning first?) to library space.  But that’s a complicated topic for another day.