What is a library?

I am far from the first to ask this question in an increasingly-electronic age, and I am sure that my answer will be far from unique.  But my wife and I have batted the question around a couple of times and I wanted to get my thoughts down.  The proximate cause of our discussion was an meditation on the large space allocated to the library in the school where I teach, the dusty and ill-utilized books moldering there, and the concern that the library might come to be seen as “wasted” space.  The thought of a college-prep school without a library seems equal parts worrisome and absurd, yet it’s hard to argue in favor of the proposition that the stacks continue to serve their traditional vital role in education.  Can the library be saved when books have fallen out of favor?

This almost visceral sense that a library is crucial to the very idea of a school sparked me to examine my thoughts as to why.  What does a library bring to a school?  Given that the books collected there garner fewer and fewer readers, given that research as done today is mediated almost entirely by electronic databases and broad-based web searches, what hole would the library leave were it to disappear?

My eventual reconciliation of these two opposed thoughts — that a school without a library is nearly unthinkable, yet my school persists even with the library a dying institution — lies in the meaning of the word.  Is a library, at the core, a collection of books?  Or it is something more?  Obviously the word derives from books, but then, there is a bone in the ear called a “stirrup” and I hardly expect I can use it to hold my boot while riding a horse.  Sometimes the words chosen for a thing obscure later truths understood about it.

I take my inspiration from the borrowing of “library” into the field of coding.  A library is a section of code that can be loaded into a program, adding standard functionality without requiring the programmer to code it herself.  It’s a collection of resources she knows is available and provides functionality she need not expend her resources developing, or might not even be able to code herself without extensive training.  The resources are available universally, open to all, representing an investment that no one coder could make while preventing wasteful redundancy.

From this, I draw the following understanding of what a “library” is in the 21st century:

A library is a collection of resources held in common by members of a community that are useful to an individual but beyond his or her ability to obtain individually.

In the context of a school, a library is a set of resources that students might reasonably be expected to utilize but that it would be unreasonable to expect them to purchase on their own.

In years past — indeed, for most of the modern history of schools — books would be exactly that sort of resource.  Even after the invention of the printing press, books remained expensive and relatively rare, academic books even more so.  Students could not be expected to purchase abstruse volumes on Renaissance history or deep investigations on sonnet structure.  Moreover, even if they could, the effort would be wasteful:  Their need for such books would be transient, while the school’s need would be persistent.  It is no accident that, often, professors could be lured to new schools with the promise of well-stocked libraries in their subfields.  A not-insignificant complementary resource was simply the space to store all those books; books are bulky and heavy.

But lately, the cost of books has plummeted.  The popularization of the paperback, the rise of the ebook, the liberation of textual knowledge from the printed page — these have undercut the role of books as vital resources.  Now you can expect a student to buy a copy of Romeo & Juliet; you can expect every student to have an individual copy.  It’s less reasonable to expect them to subscribe to a literary journal, of course; but it’s less common that they would want or use the physical journal anyway.

On the other hand, modern scholarly research is increasingly conducted online.  The physical copy of the journal is not the important bit; the content of the articles is what matters.  Many journals are now accessible electronically but require a subscription.  Those remain far outside the reach of a typical family and would yield a very poor return, as the journal might only be accessed a handful of times.  But it makes sense for a school to take such a subscription and make that resource available to the students or faculty.

The book has evaporated; the library remains.

Once you recognize that the books were never the point of the library — that they were merely a delivery mechanism for the important things — then the word library broadens immensely.  Instead of asking “What books should we collect?” or “Should we even have a library?”, the questions becomes “What resources do our students need that we cannot reasonably expect them to amass on their own?”

My own list follows.  I am sure I’ve missed things but I feel confident that each item below would fit nicely in this reimagined library.

  • Subscriptions to academic journals
  • Subscriptions to databases, archives, and data sets
  • High-quality cameras
  • High-quality microphones
  • Fast and capable printers
  • Large-format printers
  • High-resolution scanners
  • Three-dimensional scanners
  • 3D printers
  • High-resolution auxiliary displays
  • Specialist software for editing and producing audio and video recordings

There occurs to me one other resource that might be vital for student scholars yet beyond their own capacity to provide for themselves: Silence.  We live in a loud and social world; hallways in schools ring with laughter and conversation.  It’s virtually impossible for a student to carve out a quiet space for himself or herself.  Because so much scholarly work is accessible on the devices students own and carry, they can group-work virtually anywhere.  But they cannot by themselves exclude noise and distraction.  The school, collectively, can.  It can provide one space where a student knows that silence will prevail and distraction will be ejected.  In the 21st century, such a space is a vital resource.  It seems logical enough to house it with the other non-replicable resources the school provides its community.

In the end, then, we loop back to the idea that, though the content of libraries may change with the times, both their mission and their ambience might not.