In an era dominated by digitization, rapid technological advancements, and the ubiquity of information at our fingertips, a question arises: Are libraries, those venerable bastions of knowledge, on the brink of extinction? The once-familiar image of patrons quietly perusing bookshelves now competes with the allure of e-books, audiobooks, and online resources.
The rapid proliferation of technology has undoubtedly altered the way we access and consume information. From the convenience of smartphones to the vast realm of the internet, a world of knowledge can be summoned with a few keystrokes. This digital transformation has sparked concerns about the waning footfall in libraries and, by extension, their eventual obsolescence.
Many say that libraries have not become extinct but have merely transformed into places that reflect a society from the 21st century.
In fact, Book Riot –the largest literary site in North America– insists that “libraries are far from dying”. But that is because, in a span of a decade, the proportion of non-digital materials in libraries has decreased from 98% in 2009 to 45% in 2019. The dominance of physical books has also waned, with their presence accounting for approximately 39% of collections. Meanwhile, eBooks have surged to represent a third of the collection, while physical and digital audio resources make up about 25%.
Libraries have become community technology hubs, providing vital resources like Wi-Fi and responding to evolving needs. They now offer an array of cutting-edge resources, from online databases to workshops on digital literacy and technology skills.
Take, for instance, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library in Manhattan, boasting an array of modern amenities including a business center, podcasting studios, and a rooftop terrace. Similarly, the Deichman Bjørvika library in Oslo, awarded the public library of the year in 2021, is home to “stunning” reading rooms, a cinema, a 200-seat auditorium, cafes, recording studios, rehearsal spaces, and game rooms. The Fayetteville Public Library in Arkansas also offers, among other amenities, an ‘art and movement’ room, an event center, and a teaching kitchen.
But let’s delve into the past and see if the home of information we, for some reason still call libraries, is reflected in our ancestry.
In the past, libraries served merely as essential research hubs, providing access to a vast array of printed materials. Researchers would physically visit libraries, often equipped with index cards or catalogs, to locate specific books or documents relevant to their inquiries. They would navigate rows of bookshelves, scanning titles and call numbers, retrieving volumes to examine on-site or borrow for a limited period, only to find they had borrowed a book that had not had the perfect information, which called for a second trip to the library. Transcribing relevant information by hand was also crucial for on-site examination.
Some would call this journey to finding information pointless, perhaps even tedious. I call it a dance through the corridors of time and knowledge, a map waiting to be deciphered that leads to a labyrinth of information. Information of which you originally only wanted a snippet yet get blessed with it in its entirety. This longer process of finding an answer constantly fed us the information we were not looking for, which subconsciously instilled in all of us a more knowledgeable mind. The quick touch of a button, however, takes you directly to where you want to go, and we all know the journey is far better than the destination.
Beyond its role as a repository of knowledge, a library also served as a training ground for honing meticulous research skills. Navigating card catalogs, deciphering classification systems, and cross-referencing texts fostered a disciplined approach to information acquisition, nurturing an intellectual acumen that extends beyond immediate gratification.
The world, and libraries, are now all about immediate gratification.
We also can’t forget the literary and romantic aura that surrounded you when walking through the halls of an old library. I sure won’t.
In the dimly lit corners of a library’s hushed expanse, I would embark on my quest for knowledge, the air imbued with the scent of aged parchment and the promise of undiscovered realms. Each step among the towering bookshelves felt like a deliberate choice, a tangible commitment to my pursuit. The weight of a leather-bound tome in my hands carried a sense of reverence, an understanding that within those pages lay a meticulously crafted narrative, a chronicle of human thought preserved through the ages. The act of leafing through pages, each crinkle and whisper, was a tactile dialogue with history itself. Every note scribbled in the margins, every dog-eared corner, held the echo of someone’s contemplation, an intimate connection that transcended time.
In contrast, the digital era, while swift and boundless, lacks the intimate communion with knowledge that the library bestowed. Google’s algorithmic efficiency cannot replicate the serendipitous discoveries stumbled upon while running fingers along dusty shelves, nor can it capture the profound connection to the past that came alive within the library’s hallowed walls.
So, while most would say libraries have evolved into the perfect 21st-century hub, for me, they have become extinct with the arrival of light-speed information.