25 May 2010

Save the Last Dance for Me

Nervous that libraries may cease to exist? Your response probably says a lot about you. Pragmatic? Liberal? Socialist? Anarchist? Intellectual? Old? Young? Poor? Rich? There are all kinds of world views, but, interestingly enough these are not the defining pivot-point in the library debate. It comes down to one distinction: reader or watcher? Do you use your mind to form words into a visual picture, or do you prefer a display or program to do it for you? Do you have the ability to weave a rich and enjoyable experience from text, or do you require the aid of a mechanical interpreter? Do you have a workable imagination or do you need a mediator to augment it or supply one for you?

There is one compelling reason why libraries must continue to exist. Of all the arguments only this one matters: we must be able to think for ourselves.

What's that, you say? Why, the internet is the most democratic medium on earth. It allows anyone to speak their mind and all the world can listen. It allows any opinion to find a forum and any group to be represented. That is, assuming they have a device and the internet and the know-how to use all of that. And assuming that the browser you use to search for such messages remains impartial, pure and disinterested. And assuming that governments don't begin to monitor and mediate such messages. (Oops, sorry. Too late.) And disregarding, for a moment, the dictatorship of the trend, in which might makes right.

Perhaps even more risky, and certainly more current is the sub-idea that we must be able to think (at all). Not optically follow images, or achieve a high-level Pavlovian response to electronic stimulus. I read an article recently which reported that scientists are discovering that people exercise their brains more when they browse the web than when they read a book. I find that I exercise my jaw muscles more when I eat caramels than when I eat cooked carrots. I wonder if there is a correlation? It must mean caramels are healthier! Hmmm.... Because your brain is more stimulated by three loci of stimuli at once neither confirms that it is beneficial or that it results in an enhanced ability to think. It just means that more neurons are firing. Undoubtedly good exercise, but let's be careful about a conclusion. (Nevertheless, if it helps prevent Alzheimer's, I am on board.)

Every avenue of learning and experience has its place, of course. I enjoy having the internet, but will state for the record that my ability to think has enhanced my internet experience, but the internet did not teach me to think. Working as a reference librarian, I can tell you that getting something out of the WWW is a function of what you are able to put in in thought and method.

OK, so the internet doesn't teach you to think or imagine. Cheer up! In our library we have about fifty public computers which stay busy from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and slightly shorter hours on weekends. Constantly. So if you are struggling with the library-as-a-valued-public-service debate, come use our place while you consider. And if the power goes out we have books! magazines! newspapers! (While they still exist.) And backup generators. Having a comfy building with comfy sofas in which to build ideas, a bricks and mortar structure which actually exists and has live people in it is a bonus. And okay, so you checked out Twilight three times; it was a lapse in judgment. Your secret is safe with us. See if you get that on the internet.

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