On Libraries

During World War II in the neighborhood where I lived, a small lending library of current fiction and non-fiction books was maintained in a nearby home. Anyone could pay a modest fee to borrow a book for a week or so, making it unnecessary to purchase a copy or wait until one became available at the distant public library. It wasn’t so easy to buy books during those wartime years so the little lending library around the block became a popular and much appreciated neighborhood center. Whatever happened to those small private lending libraries? I suspect they have all but vanished from this country.

About the time I entered Junior High, I began to study at the nearby library in my hometown. It was a small library located in the City Hall of what was then a village, albeit no less fashionable than now. The library was not far from my home and eventually I began biking or taking the bus there several times a week. It was quiet. The tables were hidden from one another in between the open stacks that filled the rooms. The books that I needed then were readily available. But mostly I would go to study and read. It was more than enough to simply be amongst those books for an hour or two in the afternoon.

I recall an older man was always there when I arrived. Now that I think about it, he must have been about the same age as I am now. Perhaps he was a writer for he was always scribbling something on a pad of yellow paper. I suspect I was rather impressed by his devotion to writing and seriousness of intent. Strangely, after all of these years, I’ve not forgotten him or that strange blend of paper, leather, and dust that I inhaled each time I stepped foot in the little library in my hometown.

In his blog (10/16/14), Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp describes a somewhat similar experience, updated for modern times. Every weekday in my university library I see a diminutive elderly man seated in front of a computer near the main reference desk. He wears an olive-drab bucket cap with the cord fastened below his chin and a sweater with holes at the elbows. His nose is inches from the screen, against which he holds a pocket magnifying glass. Beside him is a pile of books and papers. His gaze is intent.

Since the days of my youth, I have been to many fine libraries: Widener, Bodleian, the libraries at Stanford and Berkeley. I am overwhelmed with gratitude each time I step foot in one of those places. The first time I wandered in to the great reading room of the New York Public Library I had to stop and catch my breath.

Before me were row after row of tables with hundreds of readers peering at their books. I walked down one of the long aisles lined with book shelves glimpsing the titles of reference books most of which I didn’t even know existed, crossed over to the other side with a comparable collection that I would love to be able to get my hands on. It was hard to leave. While I usually work alone, after being in that room, I realized for perhaps the first time that I could actually read and write in the reading room of the New York Public Library and that if I lived in New York, I would probably go there every day.

And yet, as rich as are the resources of the New York Public Library and other comparable collections, the little library in the City Hall of my hometown, like any first love, will always remain my favorite. It is where I would want to be when it comes time to read my last book. I am sure the card catalog will still be there. After all, the librarians would never think of abandoning it for something as racy as a computer.

Is anyone going to the library now? To find out I went over to the Portland State University library the other day. I walked in the main entry and was immediately confronted by a room full of computers, with a student working at each console and a long line of other students waiting for an opening.

I counted about 50 workstations and as I walked up and down row upon row of them, I failed to see a single person reading a book. Some were taking notes from a website, others were writing text, while still others were composing e-mails. I went upstairs and observed much the same at about a dozen round tables each with five radiating computer stations, fully occupied with students peering at the screen.

As far as I could tell, not one was reading from a book. Where were the books, anyway? What a barren place I thought. Off to the side there were a few scattered readers. Most of them were taking notes from textbooks not anything from the library collection. However, I did see a fair number of students listening to their iPods and talking on their cell phones.

Up to the third, fourth and fifth floor with progressively fewer students but almost without exception each one working away on their laptops. These floors were largely devoted to the library’s open stacks, aisle after aisle of book shelves crammed full of books, journals, and monographs. I walked down the central aisle of each floor, glancing to my left and then to my right and I did not see a single individual browsing through these books.

I did see a few library personal returning books to the shelves. That was reassuring. And there were a small number of students reading at the largely empty tables on the perimeter of each floor, but not one by a pile of books that they had collected from the stacks or checked out from the library. So many books, so many unopened, untouched books, so few, if any, readers, year after year.


Stefanie said...

Since I work in a law library things are a bit different here, but most of the students are working on their laptops when they come in or reading from their textbooks. Our circulation numbers drop each year by at least 10%. Most students find what they need online these days and we cater to that, providing more and more databases and ebooks. Some students somehow manage to make it through all 3 years of law school without stepping foot into the library.

Richard Katzev said...

I imagine a Law Library would be a different breed. Your report is interesting. Surely those heavy law tomes are much easier to read on a laptop or tablet. The decline in circulation is not surprising and I wonder if you reduce your purchases as a result.

When I was a undergraduate I used to go over to the Law Library to study. It was ever so quiet and I didn't know anyone there. One year, I even didn't a post-doc at Law School, to prepare for a course in Psychology and Law.

I found the teaching methods medieval and spent most of my time reading inter-disciplinary books and met some professors interested in the same topic.

Stefanie said...

We have reduced our purchases, at least in print, we spend quite a lot on digital. Still, it is heartening that not everything is digital and we still do have a good many books. And yeah, my library is a very quiet place to study, mandatory quiet on all floors but the main one where the service desk and the entrance is. We get students from other parts of campus over now and then for some peace and quiet. And the teaching here is definitely not medieval :)

Richard Katzev said...

Thanks Stefanie. It appears you have kept pace with book orders only now there are more digital purchases than before. I'm glad you to learn your teaching methods have kept pace with the times.

I confess I also purchase more digital versions than I used to. I have come to rather like reading on my Kindle app.

Anonymous said...

I visit my local library at least once each month - I always check online to find out if a book I'm interested in might be there. I found Augustus by John Williams, The Surrendered by Chang Rae Lee, and many other fine works. I am trying very hard to cut back on my book buying addiction. I have no more space for them.

Yes, the modern local libraries seem sterile, without character, more and more digital services. It is sad.

I think the only reason I would ever visit New York City would be to visit the NY Library. Surprisingly, Kansas City has a very fine old library in the heart of the City, but I just do not go into the City.

Richard Katzev said...

It's good that you visit you local library once in a while. I wish I did but I am finding everything I need online now. Like you, I am significantly reducing my purchase of printed books, no where to put them. But I do save the passages in digital books in my commonplace book, along with those I save in printed books. I have almost all of Ian McEwan's printed books, but I reading his latest, The Children Act, on my Kindle app.