Why Go to the Library?


// Prof. Grant Campbell

“Everything’s online,” people tell us. Why should we go to the library? Why does anyone go to a library? Well, libraries are my business, and I’ve spent a lot of time in them. But let’s start by knocking down some of the wrong reasons for going to a library.

“Because the library is a magical place full of wonders.”

A library is a place full of books. Used books. People handle them. Fondle them. Write on them. Sneeze on them. Spill coffee on them. Also computer terminals, with keyboards that have had been fingered by so many people that you hope that proctologists have their own dedicated terminal. And chairs in which countless people have sat, lounged, slept, stretched out, cuddled together, and probably done other things. On the bright side: with the advent of social media hookup sites, the washroom cubicles aren’t as graphically informative as they were in my undergraduate days.

“Because the library is a magnificent structure.”  

Some, I suppose. The New York Public Library is pretty cool, with those lions and that fabulous reading room. But a lot of university libraries are pretty darned ugly. Other things are more important. Does the roof leak? Is there enough room? Can the building support all sorts of new technologies? Librarians are pretty practical people: they prefer a building that does the job over a building that lifts the spirits.

D_B_Weldon_Library_University_of_Western_Ontario_1.jpg

Like it or not, libraries are physical buildings that hold physical objects. As such, they remind us that information is real. It may look like magic when you type words into a search engine and the stuff appears in fractions of a second.  But the words you typed went to a massive index that pulled out data distributed among hundreds of server farms, all over the world, all of them drawing horrendous amounts of power, and transmitted through thousands of miles of fibre-optic cable. All of that happens behind the scenes, and you can’t see it.

In a library, you can see the information. Shelves and shelves of it. You can see people moving it around, checking it in, shelving it, organizing it. You can see people using it, fighting over it, copying it. It’s wonderful. It’s also kinda gross. But then, whether it’s in physical form or digital form, information is wonderful, and kinda gross. It’s best you learn that right off the bat.

What else do you see in a library? You see people. They’re reading. They’re studying. They’re meeting. They’re talking. It’s the whole idea of “the public sphere”: a public forum where people can interact and debate and exchange ideas and values. Pretty great, isn’t it?

Well, yes, I suppose. But actually, what I really notice in a library is that people are real. There’s something about a library that causes people to relax their masks. And, just like information, people are pretty wonderful. And kinda gross.

You’ll see all kinds of wonderful behaviour in a library. People help others who are staggering under a load of books. They’ll make room for each other in the elevator. They’ll speak in low, courteous tones. They’ll say “please” and “thank you.”

Until they start concentrating. Then they make strange sounds between their teeth. Some people absently pick their noses, or squash a pimple. Some people clip their fingernails. They grunt, and sigh, and shift positions. And when they go home, they often leave little nests behind them: nests of pencil shavings, eraser debris, scraps of paper, chewing gum wrappers. It’s not very appealing. But it’s real. They’re not tweets; they’re not comments on a Facebook or blog post; they’re not the disembodied expressions of hatred and prejudice and blind stupidity. The people themselves are real. Wonderful, and kinda gross.

When pundits talk about “big data,” they’ll get really excited about “data trails”: tracing online behaviour like keystrokes, social media “likes,” purchasing history, computer cookies, and so on. It can sound really glamorous, and, to be sure, there’s some exciting stuff happening there. It sounds really frightening when you hear stories of constant online surveillance, identity theft, and advertising that targets vulnerable people. Those stories are also worth heeding. But the library is a good place to visit, because it shows us what these fancy-sounding data trails really are: they’re the online equivalent of pencil shavings, eraser dust, and little scraps of things that we all secrete as we move through university. When all is said and done, “big data” is no more glamorous than digging stray loonies out from between the sofa cushions.

But something else is real, and it’s the real reason to go to the Library.

Librarians.

They too are real people: flawed in lots of ways, but real. And you can meet them and talk to them and get them to help you. Most of our online information is curated behind the scenes by algorithms that make assumptions about what you want. Sometimes they’re accurate. Sometimes they’re not. But you can’t see those algorithms; you can’t talk to them; you can’t explain to them what you want, and why.

There’s lots wrong with libraries. Their classification systems are complicated and sometimes outdated; their materials are sometimes heavily used, or not there when you want them; they don’t deliver things right to your door. But here’s something I learned very early on: the learning process begins by resisting something you can see. You’re more powerful, more self-reliant, and more articulate, after you’ve spotted and resisted the imperfections of a real, working system, than you are after silently accepting a system that you can’t see.

Visit the university’s libraries. Talk to the librarians. Keep it real.

// Grant Campbell is an Associate Professor in FIMS who teaches courses that explore the theory and practice of information organization and retrieval.

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