I’ve had meetings all week in a different building, so I haven’t been in my office much this week. During lunch yesterday, I thought I would check my e-mail at the library since it was close. I walked in and saw rows of unoccupied computers with a sign posted stating that the internet was down. It was the emptiest I have seen this particular library.
Realizing that e-mail wasn’t going to happen, I took a few minutes to browse and check out a few things. It reminded me of the time when libraries weren’t computer labs that offered books on the side — some are now only computer labs with no books — and had card catalogs with actual cards.
I have an emotional attachment to libraries and bookstores. Some of my favorite memories of my time as an undergraduate (at least those that don’t involve my wife) are of working in and spending time in Ball State’s Bracken Library. It was my first university library experience and it seemed to have limitless contents. Amazingly, anything I couldn’t find on its shelves, I could request through Interlibrary Loan.
Being in the unintentionally unplugged library this week reminded me of the hours spent among the “stacks” as we referred to the shelves of books. Working for Interlibrary Loan for a while exposed me to all sorts of interesting materials as I would grab a stack of requests that had come in from other institutions, gather the books from the shelves, and package them for mailing. I also remembered my own public library as a kid as well as school libraries before Ball State. All of these were bibliocentric places. They were quiet, though occasionally busy.
The way the internet has changed our relationship to information has been profound. Having lived through its dawning and ascendency has been interesting. Google allows us to grab facts quickly while books invite us to knowledge. We can speed date on Google. “Who was that actor in that movie about that thing?” Google and Siri stand ready to give us the name. What’s the allowable size for a carry-on? For these sorts of queries, the internet excels.
Stories and deeper questions seem to still reside in books. A library or a bookstore is more like traditional dating. We browse, we select a book, and we may take it on a date — checking it out from the library — or we may fully commit and buy it from the bookstore. (Fortunately, books aren’t jealous and are content to be added to a collection of hundreds.)
The internet often seems to give us disembodied facts, perhaps crowdsourced as on Wikipedia or written by anonymous contributors on various webpages. Books, generally speaking, have authors. We can find one we like and pursue more of their works. Good nonfiction has footnotes and works cited which can lead us to other authors and books. It is an early version of the hyperlink, but to other books and articles. There is no guarantee, though, that the work cited may be available to us.
I am the most nostalgic person I know when it comes to libraries. I appreciate moments like the one this week that take me back between the stacks in my mind to the pleasant hours among canyons lined with books that I have been fortunate enough to roam.