Keeping the library open

This post will be slightly more philosophical in intent than the title may suggest.

In the late 1970s I was a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge in England. As was the case with many of those doing research for a PhD, I spent a lot of time in the library. Or maybe I should say, in the libraries, because Cambridge had a number of these and I frequented many of them, in part because I was trying to stretch my work across disciplinary boundaries. I loved the libraries, and I enjoyed working there and eating there and observing other users there.

And then I attended a talk at which the speaker suggested that the age of libraries was nearly over. At the time we were not yet in the era of personal computing, but the speaker predicted – accurately – that this was just over the horizon, and (less accurately) that once computers became accessible to the masses libraries would be out of business. Books, he suggested, would be acquired for their historical and aesthetic attractions but not for reading.

Earlier this year, on a visit to London, I sought out a library I used to frequent on visits from Cambridge, and found much of it as I remembered it. There were plenty of readers, and while some were sitting at desks with iPads out, others were immersed in old fashioned print. But there was a difference. I don’t know whether it was just that particular day, but what I found was that the readers were interacting with each other much more than in former days. Back then we would sit quietly and do our reading and writing, and the only interaction would be an irritated glance at someone making a noise. Now people were exchanging views, pointing to things 0n their iPads or their books, quietly arguing or discussing.

If there has been a change, I suspect this will have been caused by a number of different factors; but I think the accessibility of technology-disseminated information will have played a part, as this breaks down strict disciplinary boundaries more easily than, in former days, cautious attempts to invade some other discipline’s scholarly spaces. And books have kept pace, still read, indeed perhaps more widely shared now than before: the analog and the digital in harmony.

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7 Comments on “Keeping the library open”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    Yes, the change noticed in the library is due to a number of different factors, principally the fact that the book has lost what Walter Benjamin called the *aura* and its dominant status, the consequence is not just a breaking down of disciplinary boundaries (actually some have argued that disciplines are as strong as ever), rather the current media-ecology is more complex, I’d say richer, the survival and even the revival of the analogue (books, vinyl etc.) is due to several reasons among which that no ‘old’ technology dies and we establish emotional, sensual relationship with such objects in order to construct personal narratives of identity, to mention a few such reasons..

  2. Vince Says:

    I remember entering the libraries of the NUI and being incredibly disappointed. All the buildings were very modern with windows blasting daylight causing blinding reflections off the books that had that hi-res paper. But mostly to do with their collections. I knew places like the London Library, the library of the RBK&C. Even Hammersmith would’ve triple the books for any given subject. It wasn’t until I discovered the stacks that the very narrow focus on the current and recent subject matter of the departments held on the shelves opened up a bit. I even found books that hadn’t been split. One in particular about German ‘recent’ history published in 1880.
    What I couldn’t figure out was where the rest were drawing, that is until I figured out that they were reading the journals, not the books.


  3. All I can remember about Cambridge libraries was their restrictive entry rules – no members of the public. Well done Aberdeen Uni for welcoming all to its new one …

  4. Andy Carr Says:

    So agree with you. Libraries (to those who are enlightened enough to use them) are more lively as knowledge exchanges than ever. If books are dying out why was Foyles in London packed with customers on Monday?

  5. Vince Says:

    Happy Christmas Ferdinand, and to all here also.

  6. Edward du courseau Says:

    Impossible to find a seat as we approached exams. And the lecturer would make three books compulsory reading, all three copies of which would be borrowed by the time we new about them. Life is so much easier now!

  7. baronesssamedi Says:

    Credit has to be given to Council and Local Authority libraries where the move to introduce coffee and ‘community’ activities and services has meant that the Silence rule has been unknown since the 1980s


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