29 January 2012

Guilty of Abandonment and Worried

by Louis Willis

“Libraries are the homes of critical thought, of long-term cultural preservation, and of democratic access to knowledge. This can’t end with the Internet.” Nathan Torkington ‘Where It All Went Wrong’.
Buying books and doing research online has made me feel guilty for having, for the last four or five years, neglected, no abandoned, my local library. I worry that libraries, like dinosaurs, might become extinct, and eBooks will replace pBooks. 

In the article from l which I took the above quotation, Nathan Torkington in his address to the National and State Librarians of Australasia in Auckland argues that libraries must catch up with the digital age, especially for researchers. He notes that libraries no longer have a monopoly on research and that the younger generations will increasingly do their research online.

In November, I read another article online (forgot to copy the URL or the name of the author) about how libraries get rid of old books through sales or destruction to make room for newer books. I thought that libraries sold old books or gave them to charity but never considered the fact that they destroy them. I am what the author calls an absolutist, and I hate the very idea of destroying books, even those by obscure authors on esoteric subjects.

The two articles made me think about the Lawson McGhee Library here in Knoxville. I got my first library card at the Cansler Branch for Colored when I was 9 or 10. The summer when I was 12, I dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player, and checked out as many books as I was allowed on baseball, one of which introduced me to Wee Willie Keeler. He taught me, a small guy like him, how to “hit’em where they ain’t.” I learned that libraries where I could get book to learn how to do just about anything, and could also study African American history. 

Whenever I moved to a new city, one of the first thing I would do was get a library card. The first big library I visited was the Chicago Public Library. Walking among the stacks was what I expect heaven to be like if I make it through the Pearly Gate. I next visited the library in Chicago that houses books by and about African Americans to do research for an undergraduate project in American Literature. It was truly a delightful surprise: a building full of books about Black people.

Last year, the Lawson McGhee Library System celebrated its 125th anniversary. I last visited the main library downtown in 2006 or 2007, and the branch library in my community of Burlington in 2008. I feel guilty that I stopped attending the yearly book sale at which time I bought as many books as I could carry in a plastic bag for three dollars. It was my way of contributing to the library fund.

Lawson McGhee has embraced the digital age. I knew that it lent audio books and DVDs, but I was surprised to learn that it lends eBooks, and that the main library and several branches have wireless Internet access for customers, and also provide computers and Microsoft Office for public use. My New Year pledge to the library will be my physical attendance again at the book sales and occasional borrowing of books, including eBooks. I’ll have to be careful about borrowing eBooks, however, because I might  continue the bad habit of not visiting the library in person.

The upside to borrowing eBooks is you don’t have to worry about them being overdue and find yourself in the situation as a five year old girl did in Massachusetts.

On January 4, 2012 the Guardian published a story about a five- year-old girl In a small Massachusetts town who had two overdue library books. The police “…swooped on the home of” the little girl. Seeing the police, she stared crying and asked her mother if the policeman was going to arrest her. If she had checked out eBooks, maybe no cops would have “swooped” on her home.
I worry but refuse to believe that eBooks will replace pBooks, and the Internet will replace libraries. Of course, some politician might decide one day that Internet libraries cost less than real libraries in real buildings.



7 comments:

Dixon Hill said...

I too am an absolutist as you define the word. It has always struck me that the road to totalitarianism is almost always begun with Book-Banning and Book-Burning as the first step.

And, you really nailed the primary threats I encounter when dealing with libraries (“I thought that libraries sold old books or gave them to charity but never considered the fact that they destroy them.”) and to libraries themselves, in my opinion (“Of course, some politician might decide one day that Internet libraries cost less than real libraries in real buildings.”)

While researching another subject, I once accidentally came across a magnificent, but little-known, autobiography by an Australian who had flown a WWI fighter, then bought a bi-plane sea-plane after the war. He lived in his plane for a couple of years, flying around the islands with his dog. Later, he became an early airline pilot, eventually helping to map-out the transpacific seaplane routes flown by the clippers. During WWII, he flew a PBY. Afterward, in other planes – including, extensively, other PBY’s – he helped set distance flight records over the Pacific. The book was so incredible, it inspired me to begin plotting an adventure novel about a guy flying a PBY, as part of an intelligence operation, along the Pacific coast of China in the late 30’s. When I returned to the library to re-examine the book, because the author had provided such a detailed account of PBY piloting and navigation, it was only to discover that the library had gotten rid of this gem! I went home and cried for about a week.

There are no “Libraries” in my children’s schools. There never have been, since my now-22-year-old son began Kindergarten. Even though all my kids attended the same grade school I went to – in which we had a library with a pretty large collection of books – the school, as it now stands, has a “Media Center” where the library used to be. Books comprise less than a third of what’s in that room. And they occupy far less than a third of that space.

The idea that libraries my disappear worries me greatly — and not just because I love books. Among other concerns, I worry about whether people 2,000 years from now will have any books from our current age to examine for archaeological purposes. Maybe that idea seems strange to you, but if you consider the number of important libraries that have burned or been looted throughout history – and the resulting loss of knowledge, because of this – perhaps you can understand my concern, as well as my desire for multiple repositories of physical books, so that future researchers might literally dig these places up to learn about our current society. Electronic media, it seems to me, is both too perishable and too easily alterable to be considered a reliable future archeological resource IMHO – though contrary opinions are welcome.

janice said...

I think the real worry for libraries is that fewer people read books period.

As for the destruction of books, speaking now as a board member of our very small local library, I can assure you that this is the last option and only for books that are moldy, water damaged, or have become too dirty to be circulated- these usually are donated books.

Louis A. Willis said...

Dixon, I agree that maybe there should multiple repositories for pBooks. Having at times lost information because my computer crashed, I don’t trust digital storage.

Janice, I don’t if fewer people are reading books, but here in Knoxville, I discovered, as I scrolled down the list looking for a good eBook (fiction) to checkout, that most of the eBooks are on hold.

Leigh Lundin said...

First, many librarians are heroes, defending our right to read whatever we want, sometimes in defiance of state or federal authorities who want to poke through our reading lists.

Second, one of the best library systems I've ever seen was in the Columbus, Ohio area. They offered computers and internet long before many other libraries, but the also have vast collections of literature, music, movies, and art.

I love libraries.

Terry J said...

Without librarians, will we lose that wall between the state and our privacy? We've seen the government and even companies demand web sites turn over their customer bases. Didn't the US have web site owners arrested just last week?

Dixon Hill said...

Hey, I’m not dogging-out librarians. I like librarians – a lot!

My statement about book-banning/burning being among the first steps that a totalitarian regime makes, should in no-way be construed as my equating librarians with book-burning totalitarians. In fact, I’m sure most librarians see themselves as books’ guardians, and that Janice is right: libraries do all they can not to destroy books, unless they’re irredeemably damaged. (My concern, was that my local library couldn’t tell what had happened to that book, which had been removed from circulation.)

I think we need to consider, however, that as libraries change due to the electronic information wave, books are being shunted aside, at least to an extent — and, out of necessity — because there is only so much space in a building, no matter how large it is. I applaud Louis’ article, because I think it points up a dialogue worth having, concerning: “How should libraries remake themselves in the digital age, and what do these changes mean to society at large?”

This is a question I’m sure librarians have been addressing for at least a decade or two, but I think the reading public (as well as library leaders) need a voice in creating such plans. One way the public makes its voice heard, of course, is through “voting” on which books should stay by checking them out; I think this is part of what lies at the crux of Louis’ concern that he hasn’t checked out many p-books over the past few years, because he feels his desire for their continued presence in his library isn’t being voiced (i.e.: He hasn’t been checking them out, so it might look to library data-keepers as if he’s voting to get rid of them.). If I’m wrong, Louis, set me straight.

Rob can probably give us his two cents about this, also — and I’d love to hear from him.

In a nod toward the new paradigm created by the digital age, I’d also like to point out that my concerns about book-banning/burning being a step taken by totalitarian regimes may no longer hold true. My 22-year-old son, who seldom sets foot in a library, is very concerned whenever he feels that access to information over the internet may be being threatened. His reaction (and that of his friends) to such a threat is very similar to what my reaction to book-burning would be.

Again, this points up the idea that – from the viewpoint of a new generation – the information repository is digital, not physical. My sister holds a PhD in Paleontology and has worked archeology digs back when she was a student. From discussions with her, I’ve concluded that many of her archeology friends are concerned about physical records being available in the future; that’s what makes me write about the necessity for physical repositories. (I think Rob has some background or interest in archeology, and wonder if he’s heard anything about such a concern.)

Again: I don’t think librarians are doing anything “wrong,” but I do think a discussion about what libraries are changing into, and what impact this might have on society, is worth having.

Louis A. Willis said...

You're Dixon. I fear if don't use the library, some County commission or the County Mayor here Knox County will start looking at statistics and zero in on the library system. Hey, folks aren't checking out many books, so maybe we don't know all those buildings. One building will do since they check out eBooks.