Whatever Happened to the Library of My Youth?

Some of the very best memories I have took place in my local libraries. I had a routine: every Wednesday, my mom would drop me off at the library while my brother was at his piano lesson. Then she’d pick me up and I’d trade places with my brother.

I only ever spent about 45 minutes to an hour in the library at any one time, but those 30 minutes seemed to go on and on – in the best way, of course. I’d lose myself among the books. Sometimes I’d move with a purpose, having familiarized myself with the organizational laws that ruled that place; other times I’d just wander with no particular destination in mind.

That feeling of eminent discovery still comes to mind as clearly as it did when I was 10. And when I find myself thinking about those many hours, I get intensely and desperately nostalgic. Boyhood was made for experiences like that: for those long hours spent immersing myself in a world that I’d only barely begun to understand.

But the Internet has robbed the library of some of its mystique, has it not? I’m not here to tell you that the Internet is evil (using it still feels like a miracle every day), but there’s little doubt that it lacks some of the magic that our old-fashioned research methods had to offer. But more than that, I fear that instant gratification is robbing our younger generations of the joy of discovery.

It’s been several years since I’ve set foot in a library, to my great shame. I eventually went away to college to study writing, and ended up using that transcendent experience to find work ghostwriting for a law firm. My love of literature never wavered, however.

Even so, the time I spent in the campus library became something that had a distinctly utilitarian purpose; I only ever went there with a very specific and academic purpose in mind. My days of wonderful wandering had been replaced by something altogether more purpose-driven, and I eventually fell out of love with the library.

It wasn’t until after graduation, and after I’d fallen in and out of love with the idea of ownership and materialistic hoarding that I realized just what the library is: a gateway. It’s a repository for things that I can own for a few days or weeks at a time and then surrender back to our collective pool of human memory, experience, and knowledge. I still add to my massive collection of books, but ownership doesn’t enchant me like it used to.

I also realized something else: the extent to which we’ve failed our library systems over the last few years. We seem to march relentlessly into an oppressively digitized future, forgetting the very unique pleasure of wandering through dusty bookshelves. We’ve forgotten what it is to get lost in knowledge; we now move about in this world a little more single-mindedly than we used to.

So what’s the problem? How has technology failed us in this respect? Here, briefly, are three ways:

E-book publishers haven’t found a suitable business model yet. Amazon recently held professional writers hostage in its dispute with Hachette – a situation that was only recently resolved with a compromise. This is likely to be just the first of many similar disputes about the affordability of electronic books.

E-reader manufacturers haven’t found a convenient way to allow users to borrow e-books from their local library. Existing methods work reasonably well, but are still needlessly complicated for the technologically inexperienced.

Digital scavenger hunts just aren’t that rewarding. Wandering through the bestseller lists in iBooks or the Kindle store simply doesn’t offer the same satisfaction as walking through a physical library.

What’s the solution? I really wish I knew. The current state of affairs has local library systems literally begging for funding, and the only way they can hope to thrive is if we all manage to remember the libraries of our youth and the magic we found there.

Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons)

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