Lines of Spines

What is a library?



If you ask Google Images what a library is, you’ll get a very clear answer: books on shelves in a column-faced building.

Like Google, most of us think of the library as a storehouse for books. We can be forgiven for thinking so. Our word library comes from the Latin librarium, meaning bookcase. It’s the same for the Latin and Greek equivalents for library — bibliotheca and bibliothiki, respectively — which led to the word for library in most modern Indo-European languages. It’s also notable that the Latin word for book, liber, originally referred to the kind of bark that was used in book construction. All this is to say that, through and through, we have conceptualized the library in terms of physical objects. Bark, books, shelves, buildings.

This being the case, we tend to paint libraries as havens for book lovers. Take, for example, the novel Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, in which young Kafka Tamura runs away from home on his 15th birthday. Kafka is muscular and good-looking, but also introverted and bookish. As he says, “Ever since I was little I’ve loved to spend time in the reading rooms of libraries . . . Even on holidays that’s where you’d find me. I’d devour anything and everything — novels, biographies, histories, whatever was lying around. Once I’d gone through all the children’s books, I went on to the general stacks and books for adults.” Naturally, then, as a runaway, Kafka took refuge in a library. (Perhaps it’s worth noting that in Japanese, too, the word for library, toshokan, amounts to a building for books.)

If a library is just where a society keeps its books, then it’s easy to see why many people no longer perceive libraries as relevant. In the days of yore, a building full of books was a clear metaphor for collective knowledge. But today, knowledge is no longer bound to the printed page, and electronic and non-textual forms of media proliferate. Our cultural knowledge is no longer represented primarily as text within books. Moreover, with the internet, we can access our multimedia cultural knowledge from virtually anywhere.

It’s no secret that libraries are struggling. Funding is down in many public library systems across the country as the public no longer has much use for centralized storehouses of books. People say things like, “Why do we need libraries anymore when we’ve got Google?” Even the academic discipline dedicated to studying libraries seems to be backing away: A century ago, it was called library science; after World War II, it became better known as library and information science; over the past few decades, it’s been sloughing the L word (and often picking up words like computer and data). At my institution, for instance, the School of Library and Information Science was renamed to the College of Information Studies in 1985 — and today it’s the College of Computing and Informatics. Today, it houses a much wider range of degree programs than in previous decades, threatening to obfuscate the fact that the master’s of library and information science program is still one of the college’s core offerings.

But libraries are still important, and that’s because they are not fundamentally storehouses for books — despite the name and our longstanding cultural assumptions. We can begin to see this in the example of Kafka on the Shore, if we look beyond the surface. It’s not just that Kafka wound up in the library because he liked books. He wound up in the library because he had no other home, and the library provided a free, safe space. Indeed, over the course of the book, Kafka comes to know the proprietors of the library, and he ends up living there in a spare room. A library is not just a refuge for the intellect, but for the whole person.

As a culture, we seem reluctant to admit the breadth and depth of what libraries offer. For instance, last year I attended the play Spine, by Clare Brennan, which seeks to expose the unseen value of libraries. Following the show was a question-and-answer session with constituents from the theater company and the public library system. At one point in the conversation, a man in the audience scoffed at the idea that the library should provide bathrooms for homeless people. Libraries are about books!

We have undervalued the library all this time, I think, in part because we have overvalued the written word. Since our Judeo-Christian roots, we have ascribed mythic power to books. God Himself, it is said, is the Torah. And though popular culture has lost some of this mystical veneer since the Enlightenment, the fetishization of books has not abated: In the modern scientific tradition, we have come to consider knowledge to be only that which is communicable via text. But that is a terribly impoverished view of what human knowing can be.

Part of the reason for this is the way we conceptualize reading. We tend to think of books as things that hold information, and we think that when you read, the information jumps into your brain. If that were really how it worked, how could two people read the same text and get different information from it? It happens all the time, both in science and in life. Clearly there’s more to knowing than just getting information. As Emilio says in the novel The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, reflecting on a failed mission to space, “We had all the information, really. It was all there. We just didn’t understand.”

In the age of print we have been held sway to what books can do and forgotten what they cannot do. To the extent that information from texts equates to knowledge, it is only knowledge-that, not knowledge-how or knowledge-of-what-it-is-like. For information to unfold as these ways of knowing, to lead to understanding, we must think of information as a process rather than a thing, and certainly not a process that is bound up in any particular object.

In Kafka on the Shore, there are many scenes where we find Kafka reading. As we experience reading along with Kafka, it is clearly not a simple matter of information transfer. Kafka’s reading material — The Arabian Nights is a favorite — stirs up meanings from Kafka’s past and future, and through reading he comes to better understand his present. Reading, then, is a process of transformation of a person with a past, present, and future through an experiential engagement with a book which also has a past, present, and future.

But even allowing for this evocative power of text, Kafka learns that the written word has its limitations. Towards the end of the novel, Kafka finds himself slipping back and forth between the world of literacy and the world of whole being. In trying to describe his experience, Kafka concludes: “Neither one of us can put it into words. Putting it into words will destroy any meaning . . . Words have no life in them.” We all know this, intuitively: Not everything can be put into words. But at the same time, as every poet knows, words can express more than they seem to say.

What is fundamental about the library is not that it holds objects, or even the nature of those objects, but rather how those objects are used. And though books are the first objects that come to mind, libraries hold far more than just books. To be sure, libraries also have objects like CDs, DVDs, magazines, newspapers, maps, artwork, electronic databases, computers, and printers. But they also offer things we’re less quick to identify as objects: space, relationships, trust, understanding, and opportunities. We must recognize that libraries speak to the whole person, not just the intellect.

When Kafka realizes this, the texture of the library changes for him. “The most important thing about life here,” a young woman tells him, “is that people let themselves be absorbed into things. As long as you do that, there won’t be any problems . . . It’s like when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.”

What is a library? In the 21st century, more than ever, a library is a place that helps us realize that we are all part of each other. •

All images created by Shannon Sands.

Tim Gorichanaz is a PhD candidate in information studies at Drexel. His research explores the historical and philosophical aspects of libraries and information technology. His work appears in Straight Forward, Sinkhole and numerous academic journals. He enjoys running long distances and practicing classical guitar.


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  • The difference between the internet and a library that is most disturbing is that more and more the internet is an operation to make profit and less and less the fond of all information to fill a need. As one participates in the internet it assimilates what you have previously sought and presents you with more of the same so you ae channeled into the pockets of the providers and loose the entirety of possibility of what the universe of knowledge can offer. You become so narrowly defined that you become a caged consumer, not a seeker of all possibility.

  • The truth of the matter is that librarians are trained professionals who know not only how to find information but also to find the RIGHT information and the most ACCURATE information. To assume the internet can be counted on for reliability is laughable. It has been estimated that only 6-10% of all usable data is on the internet as we speak, but somehow we are all relegated to do the exact opposite of what educators have been telling us forever….that variables such as scholarly content, lack of bias (extremely prevalent on the internet); credible sources etc..are more important than just finding information. What is ironic is that just at a time when all information seems to be at our fingertips, we may end up having less useful information than ever before.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful redefinition of what a library is. I agree with all you have said. I’d also like to take the conversation a step further into the realm of the practical.
    Rightly or not, we are increasingly having existential debates about the value of one library or another to the organization it serves, whether that is a town, a school, a law firm, a newspaper or any place where the library was once an essential part of daily operations. The outcomes of those debates are closely tied to what it is that people are talking about, when they are talking about ‘The Library”.
    As you point out, the narrow definition of a library as ‘a place with books’ is a very incomplete one. It is also quite fragile, and makes the decision to maintain a library or shut it down based on technology forces we can’t control. By this definition, if the books are gone, the library is gone.
    While your appeal to our warm emotional feelings toward libraries resonates with those of us who are already believers, when the discussion becomes “we need the space, no one uses the books, so we can shut it down”, there is also a need to be able to express the value of a library in a more pragmatic way.
    As much as we all like to have our own comfortable space, the realities of open offices and ubiquitous data sources mean that the concept of organizational space and resources has changed. There is no reason to expect a library to be immune from those forces. Fortunately, a library program can be mobile or physically located at any place of an organization where information services are used. To tie a library to a physical space is to ensure its demise, in the long run, if not sooner.
    When the definition of a library is not ‘the place where the books sit’, but the set of services offered by the professional staff who know the community, know how to match resources and needs and offer value beyond horizontal surfaces and a quiet setting, there is room for the conversation about the evolution of the library to happen.
    At that point, the ability to argue for the continued existence of a library program becomes something within the control of those professionals, who need to step up and be accountable to the community that supports them, in the same way that any cost center must.

  • “Funding is down in many public library systems across the country as the public no longer has much use for centralized storehouses of books.”

    Correct that to “funding is down in many public library systems across the country because neo-liberalism.”

    Books carry a lot of cultural baggage, yes, and content exists in different forms, but in my post-industrial rural Southern county on the wrong side of the digital divide, books, and the one-branch library that houses them, are surely relevant.

  • During Library Snapshot week this year we collected pictures from around Washington State into a Tumblr . Here’s a sampling of those pictures turned into a video “This is what a library looks like.”

    All pictures were taken in two weeks and are a good reflection of how libraries are evolving in the 21st Century.

  • Some of the best reading I’ve ever enjoyed is what I’ve discovered on the “returned books” cart; subject matter I cannot imagine I would have otherwise learned. My “local” is indeed a community social centre, brilliant with colour, exhibiting art from Kindy through high school. Exhibitions change regularly, depending upon community discourse dominant at the time. Whether it be controversy on affordable housing, celebration of indigenous culture, perspectives on contentious issues, whatever. It’s a happening place. I have no qualms with electronic media any more so than delivered pizza. But for me, browsing the shelves & pulling a great read engages all my senses.

    • I would like to know whether someone really raised the question, “Should we provide bathrooms for homeless people?” I am willing to be corrected, but I am guessing that the person who wanted to discuss bathrooms for homeless people didn’t specifically assign the existence of bathrooms in libraries to being an amenity just for homeless people. Again, please correct me if I have misinterpreted this observation.

      Anyone seeking a PhD in library and information science and who laces his or her essay, let alone research, with emotion/empathy-driven commentary needs a good tough reality check on (1) what the culture of a library (I am assuming public library in this instance) is like, and (2) realize that as much as a library may serve as a community gathering spot and a place that offers programs and services other than lending books and make available various media electronically and in “hard copy,” the library system exists to do just that. Trust me. I’ve been in the biz for 35 years. We “believe in” libraries but we also realize that once we’re in, as employees, that is, programming and outreach and social services are a matter of survival for the physical space and personnel. The space is real estate. The staff are human resources. Together, they provide services. It is important to understand that if you request a book that turns out to have been kept in a remote storage facility, to be picked up at your neighborhood branch library, and you read the book in the park or at the beach, or at home, or while traveling, you are using a service to obtain the item you want to be delivered to a convenient point so that you can then enjoy the item elsewhere.

      The library must not be romanticized as an icon of culture. But it must be studied as just that, by breaking it down to its core operational components.

  • I wish more writers would distinguish between empirical reality and their emotional interpretations. Most of these essays are half of each, making them useless unless one
    wants to distinguish which each half is. My answer, quite useless. Lime

  • University = library
    Community center = library
    Meeting place = library
    So many libraries that do not have the burden of housing something in mimicry of a temple to lend palpable weight to a belief in need of nurture.

    • I’m interested in this idea. Are there any articles that you can point me to where I can find out more?

  • In Brazil we are eliminating the industrial model for the organization of libraries, with no more labels in the books. The organization is oriented to curating collections, in which people collaborate to organize the shelves. We eliminate automation systems, AACR2, RDA, and focus on the construction of narratives through interfaces to focus on what the cultural artifacts mean to people. Because part of the process of devaluation of libraries is the fault of the area itself, which in the historical process of automation has confused its means of work, the use of information technology for the mediation of artifacts, and the social function of libraries themselves. For us, libraries are about social intelligence, not machine intelligence. For this we completely eliminate the concept of information and the information science of libraries. We are starting a new movement for libraries as collaborative platforms, and collaboration is not about technology but identity.

  • “A scholar is a library’s means of reproducing itself.”

  • Words are abstracts of reality and each of us bases these abstracts on personal references. Any noun or verb is a generality that can be made specific with collections of other generalities but pictures are far better references in conveying information. Although books with pictures help, modern information technologies are far better as knowledge collections. The brain is a far more specific knowledge collection but transferring information between brains is always a problem because of the abstract qualities within any transfer method. Libraries are improving but probably always will have limitations.

  • Code for leveraging libraries’ increasing pointlessness by turning them into social service and propaganda hubs.

  • Once the straw-man portrayal of books merely as vehicles for information transfer (a view that no one with half a functioning neuron actually holds) is set alight, the entire argument of this piece evaporates.

    And if the only remaining justification for libraries is that they become social centers for a “community”, then let them go up in smoke, as well.

    • ‘And if the only remaining justification for libraries is that they become social centers for a “community”, then let them go up in smoke, as well.’

      Once the straw-man portrayal of libraries merely as vehicles for community is set alight, the entire argument of this comment evaporates.

  • ​One wonders what the library of today (or tomorrow) might be instead of the replication of what the library has been for 100, 200, 300 years or more. Given the enormous changes in not just our ability to consume the printed word, but our manipulation of words both in format such as on a computer, tablet, or phone, but the analogous representations of musical performances (as recordings) or performing acts (as video), that for libraries to be relevant, they need to adapt to what they store.

    I’ve often felt a library isn’t just a warehouse for books. I think most would say an Amazon distribution center is not a library. It’s a much more accessible, cultural, social establishment and for it to thrive in the future, it has to pull out those somewhat intangible but human threads to retain its magnetism.

    Perhaps the library of the future is one that is part individual and collective theater for all ages, a place where the transfer of knowledge and thought exist irregardless of the form, format, or mechanism for transferring.

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