Imaginary Libraries

I was asked recently to write a response piece to an article written by one of my CMDC colleagues John Barber. John is a Richard Brautigan scholar and has recently proposed creating a digital archive in the spirit of the library described in Brautigan's The Abortion: an historical romance. My response focused on three questions. What was the essential nature of Brautigan's library? Is this a sound model for a contemporary digital archive? Is John's proposed archive both in keeping with Brautigan's model and a practical solution for today's archival needs? Our pieces will be published in a upcoming issue of Hyperrhiz.

Writing this piece planted some seeds for a future article or at least a series of blog posts about imaginary libraries. In order to wrap my head around Brautigan's library in The Abortion, I had to turn to two of my favorite imaginary libraries: Vannevar Bush's Memex machine and Jorge Louis Borges' Library of Babel. Both of these pieces, one a serious peace of future prediction the other a playful but no-less-serious work of literature start with a vision of what is the essence of the library and build an imagined future on top of this essence's foundation.

Personal disclosure: I'm firmly in the library camp that says: "the era of print is over". More accurately, my view is that the era of print hegemony is over, but that makes me sound like a bit of a prat. Suffice it to say that while I think people will can happily and effectively choose print as their medium of choice, the fact that there IS a choice of media, where once there was only print, makes all the difference. Our library spaces, our ILS systems, our classification systems, and many of our metadata standards make assumptions about the primacy of the print medium that are no longer as true as they once were.

So now what?

I've become fairly comfortable in this position. I've realized that libraries are changing because the technology that we use to store, deliver, share, and record data and information are changing. I've realized that libraries must change or become a niche player. That is to say, if we insist on sticking to what we do best: organizing, delivering, and sharing print materials, we will only be interesting or useful to people who want print materials. That population demographic, while still significant, even dominant, is shrinking. My favorite metaphor for libraries that can't embrace the shift away from print is livery stables in the age of the automobile.

Making a long story short: recognizing an inevitable future problem is not the same thing as having a vision or a plan to deal with this inevitable future problem. Really smart librarians I respect and trust can still ask questions about diverting scarce resources away from what our service population really wants (hint: it's still books) and spending them on risky predictions about what they may want in the future, provided something shinier doesn't come along first.

So what? So what do I think we should do? My suggestion today is to read Borges' Library of Babel. Read Bush's As We May Think, read Brautigan's The Abortion: an historical romance. Then, start thinking, start talking, and start writing about what the essence of libraries is and how we can preserve this essence through the coming changes. I'm curious what you all think about the future of libraries and what can be saved.

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