When I was growing up in the 1960s, the public library was the information hub of the community. Now, thanks to technology, I can carry the entire contents of that “hub” in my purse.
Reflecting on National Library Week, April 13 to 19, and its theme, “Lives Change @ Your Library,” I was struck by how much our lives have changed since the digital revolution.
The public library of my youth was housed in an old stone building filled with towering wooden bookcases and tiny dark nooks that seemed exciting and mysterious. I loved the musty smell of the books and the thump! thump! thump! of the bespectacled librarian’s hand stamp as she manually checked out patrons’ books.
She reigned supreme at an elevated circular desk that resembled a throne from one of my beloved fairy tale books.
In 1958, the first National Library Week celebration theme was “Wake Up and Read!” Organizers were worried that “Americans were spending less on books and more on radios, television and musical instruments.”
Today, many have similar concerns that people are spending too much time on digital communication technologies, such as smartphones and notepads, and not enough time with the printed word.
PRINT VS. DIGITAL
Scholars who study the ways we perceive and process the word in written form vs. the digital version have discovered profound differences between the two in the way our brains disseminate information and analyze and reflect on what we read.
Author Nicolas Carr notes in his book “The Shallows — What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains” that: “When a printed book … is transferred to an electronic device connected to the Internet, it turns into something very like a Web site. … The linearity of the printed book is shattered, along with the calm attentiveness it encourages in the reader. The high-tech features of devices like the Kindle and Apple’s new iPad may make it more likely that we’ll read e-books, but the way we read them will be very different from the way we read printed editions.”
Will the digital revolution do away with the 650-year reign of the printed word that began with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press? This question was on my mind when I visited the “library without books” in San Antonio.
Opening in September 2013, Bibliotech is the first all-digital library in the nation and the brainchild of Bexar County Judge Nelson W. Wolff.
As a walked in, I felt I was entering another world. Its stark white walls, high ceilings and dozens of glass partitions reminded me of the futuristic “Star Wars” movies.
Assistant Branch Manager Jesse Garcia pointed out the 48 computer stations and numerous “comfortable stations” that allow patrons to access the 15,000-plus selections using their e-readers or personal computers. Some 600 e-readers also are available for patrons to check out.
Instead of lugging home armloads of books, Bibliotech users tuck their e-readers in a pocket or purse.
The children’s section featured massive flat screens, video play/learning tables and modern molded chairs. I couldn’t help but compare the impersonal, almost empty room with the colorful shelves of book spines, wooden reading tables and comfy cushions I knew as a child.
I am convinced we will see more such libraries in the future. Are we giving up something we may never regain — that wonderful ability to take a book, lose ourselves in that inner world and read for pure enjoyment?
How much will this digitization of the printed word affect our ability to learn and comprehend?
Carr says: “The division of attention demanded by multimedia further strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding. The time spent on in-depth reading and concentrated reading is … falling steadily.”
I’m sure the debate will rage on, but I hope future libraries are not relegated to the dust bin of history or all convert to gleaming white halls of impersonal stations for information hunter/gatherers. Will we find a happy medium in the techno vs. paper struggle?
I still long for the library of my youth, that crowded wooden wonderland of narrow shelves, faint scent of leather binding and thump! thump! thump! of her majesty’s royal scepter.
Our brains and libraries are changing. However, the human soul cannot be “digitized.” I wonder if we are losing something very important, even vital to our inner landscape.
Where will this new revolution take us? I don’t know, but I hope in the future there is still a place for the plain, old-fashioned library with its rows of lovely printed books and a few comfy cushions.