Stealing Libraries

On a much-vaunted recent radio broadcast by Britain’s BBC, the author Zadie Smith, in an effort to save her local library, denounced government spending cuts and the closure of public libraries. The trouble, though, was that Smith did not just attack library cuts  but rather what she saw to be the power forcing the hand of the local councils making these cuts—Britain’s privately educated leaders. Last week, her effort ended in failure when the library she had grown up visiting was closed along with five others.

As many commentators have since pointed out, the decision to axe libraries is ultimately made not by wealthy British conservatives, but instead by local politicians who decide that library money is the least controversial thing to do away with. Smith’s case wasn’t helped by her suggestion that her mother stole books from their library, an allegation denied by her mother. Others are far more skeptical about the remaining value of libraries. In an op-ed last week titled “It is the fate of libraries to die,” The Financial Times’ Christopher Caldwell went so far as to argue that libraries’ lending practices go against the Internet’s spirit of open exchange of information.

Both Smith and Caldwell are wrong, in their own ways. Smith’s criticism of closing libraries confused individual decisions with a broad mentality in society. Caldwell (inadvertently perhaps) articulated this mentality, that the Internet is replacing the need for libraries. Yet Smith is also right: We close libraries at our own risk, now more than ever in the digital age.

The digital revolution, so goes the thinking, has turned books and libraries into dinosaurs, and the preserve of retired people. Past studies in Britain have suggested that all public libraries could be shut by 2020. Everywhere, library funding is under pressure. It’s not hard to see how this attitude originates: Last month, electronic book sales outsold all single format print in the United States. Every day more and more books are digitized and made available online. A New York district judge recently thwarted Google’s ambition of digitizing every book ever printed, deeming its proposal in violation of anti-trust law. Even so, the scale of Google’s plan alone speaks volumes about how far digital material has come in the last five years. If someone could read any book ever published from any location, then surely digital material makes going to the library obsolete.

Yet here we encounter a great misconception.  Aside from Google’s own potential to establish a commercial monopoly on information, it is exactly in the unknown expanse of what Google offers that the Internet presents its great limitations. When I spoke to Robert C. Darnton ’60, the director of the Harvard University Library, he argued that “people get lost in cyberspace.” This perspective is not a unique one; the author Neil Gaiman said last year that the Internet has created an age of “too much information.” Both argue that far from being replaced, libraries must continue to play an important role in public life to help us sort through the Internet.

Darnton points to the fundamental role of the “library as space,” where librarians and other resources play a “service role” in helping people to access information. Traditionally, this information has been confined within the walls of an institution; in the future it will increasingly be accessed digitally. Because the Internet is harder to sort through than a library catalog, there’s a strong case that a library’s core services are actually becoming much more important.

At the same time, the future of digital books is unclear. While GoogleBooks’ scheme has been thwarted—maybe terminally—other vast digitization projects are moving forward, not least of all Harvard’s own Digital Public Library of America, which was launched in December of last year with the aim of digitizing out-of-print work from Harvard’ s collection and others across the U.S. The non-profit DPLA then aims to make its material available for free online.

Unlike Google’s plan to purchase copyright from publishers, authors and libraries, DPLA, as an online extension from existing an library, seems much closer to an evolution of traditional modes of access to libraries and their material. Darnton, one of the directors of the project, sees it coming in at a “critical moment where the future of digital books is being determined.” A prominent critic of Google’s own proposal, he sees the “astonishing” early support for the DPLA as cause for optimism. Accompanied by the misconception that the Internet can replace the physical space of a library, he would argue the issue is “one of the really big questions facing this country.”

Whether we end up with Google having its way, Harvard and others offering up the stuff for free, or both, the role of libraries should be the same. If we can synthesize the mobility and (hopefully continuing) accessibility of the Web with traditional ways of learning, the potential benefits of the Internet to education seem limitless. But if we allow digital material to replace imperfectly what has worked well before, we run a serious risk of creating a system that retards learning, by pulling away the foundations of what the Internet can offer. Zadie Smith may be wrong about the underlying factor in closing libraries, but in the end it’s a shame there aren’t more people fighting with her.

Eli Bartlow Martin ’13, an associate editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Lowell House.

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