Posted by: Steven Harris | March 1, 2008


[cuz I’m back! back in black!]

Slate has a nice little photo essay by Witold Rybczynski about public library architecture. The title, of course, implies that public libraries are a dinosaur in danger of extinction:

Borrowed Time: How do you build a public library in the age of Google?

The captions of the photos actually suggest that public library buildings are often serving as something other than information warehouses, and that new and different social demands and functions are often at work in the design and construction of public libraries. Yes indeed!

Rybczynski gets his notion of extinction from Ross Dawson’s “Extinction Timeline,” which is quite an interesting conceptualization of how our society my change in the coming years. There’s a nice graph showing Dawson’s projections for 1950-2050. Some of the extinctions are technological: CRT Television 2012, Fax Machines 2014. Some are lighthearted: Rocky Films 2035. Some are scary: Aral Sea 2030, Glaciers 2038.

“Libraries” are slated for extinction in 2019. Kinda unclear what Dawson means by “Libraries.” Academic? Public? Special? Any collection of information, physical or digital? Well, I suspect he means physical collections of information stored in a public place. Rybczynski comments on this:

He’s [Dawson] probably right as far as the function of the library as a civic monument, or as a public repository for books, is concerned. On the other hand, in its mutating role as urban hangout, meeting place, and arbiter of information, the public library seems far from spent. This has less to do with the digital world—or the digital word—than with the age-old need for human contact.

Dawson responds in a later post that “We are yet to see whether the spaces where people spend their time are those based around books and collected information.” If we are yet to see, one has to wonder why the prediction in the first place? Let me make a prediction: Yes, people will spend their time around books and collected information.

2019! That’s eleven years from now. That’s awfully soon for the publishing industry to completely collapse, all information to become free, people to stop reading books, or to stop wanting to interact with others who have read the same books. Last year about a million people walked through the doors of my academic library. About 10 percent of those actually checked something out and took it with them. It’s hard to compare electronic visits, but I would say there were at least 2 million electronic visits to the library. The number of uses of digital items no doubt outnumbered the physical checkouts by a factor of 2. But even in a digital world, we’re still a library. We’re still doing what libraries have always done: collection, organize, and provide access to information. I plan on being here in 2019, maybe doing new and interesting things, but still collecting, organizing, and providing access.

By the way, maybe take Dawson with a grain of salt (more than I have already suggested). His blog says he is a “strategy leaader” [sic]! Strategy leaader yes, proof reader, no. I predict, it will take 8 months for that typo to be corrected.


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