Occasionally, I get into the following conversation with a family member or friend.
ME: (something about how much I love libraries and think they are humanity’s best, most democratizing invention since the Neolithic Revolution)
FRIEND/FAMILY: Really? But don’t you think libraries are dying?
ME: Why do you say that? Because of the Internet?
FRIEND/FAMILY: Well yeah. Who goes to the library to get a book when you can read for research and for pleasure on the Internet?
At this point, I tell them what I’ve discovered throughout my 200+ hours of library volunteering: I actually think they’re growing. They’re the most effective alternative for those who don’t use the Internet. First of all, not everyone can afford a computer let alone Internet service. Many patrons come exclusively to use the computers. Second, you’d be surprised how many people aren’t Internet literate, and find it simpler to use books. Third, it’s free, which is only true sometimes for the Internet. Fourth, many video stores have shut down as a result of successful online movie/tv sites like Project Free TV and Netflix (the latter being in the top 100 most visited sites on the Internet). The local library is one of the only places I know that you can still rent (physical) movies without needing to go through an online component. Fifth, there are no pop-ups in a library. Sixth, the library offers way more than books — audio books, movies, CDs, study space, community activities like book clubs or knitting circles, and a comfortable environment where a real live person (maybe me, if you go to Wadsworth on Center Street!) can help you find what you need. And finally… if this doesn’t convince you, you have my word…
I promise, there will always be books.
Some people hold the notion that we are on the fast track towards all literature being entirely digitized. I just don’t see that happening. How many bibliophiles are there in this world? In many ways physical books are art, and if less of them are being published, those in existence will become more and more valuable and desired. I am beyond convinced that, even among future generations who are raised using the Internet, many people will prefer books to online reading. The Internet is not here to supplant books. It’s not a competition. I can’t see any reason why, no matter how far into the future we look, one will exist without the other.
When technology evolves, we don’t always abandon the prototype. Horses, oxen, donkey etc. were once instrumental to farm-work pulling carts, wagons, ploughs, and other wheeled vehicles. Then along came steam-powered ploughs, tractors, pick-up trucks, and other technology that in many ways obviated beasts of burden. Does that mean farms no longer have those animals? No. Do they serve the exact same function? Well, no, that’s not true either. But it doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared, and books won’t either.
When we were talking in class today about those who want to “put the genie back in the bottle,” this is what came to mind. The genie hasn’t left! It’s tempting to act alarmist at the rise of the Internet, because it truly has changed the way we perceive the world, as Benjamin pointed out. But I think we’re doing digital literature a disservice if we treat the burgeoning relationship between print and virtual texts as a Death of a Salesman scenario.
Ah yes, and one more thing. Libraries have huge historical significance, and I’m not just talking about the Alexandria deal. They are beautiful, architectural feats that — if nothing else — will certainly be kept around for historical and aesthetic reasons.