In The Digital Era, Public Libraries Are More Important Than Ever
Overwhelmed by digital technology, we have forgotten the vital functions of libraries in our public life.
Public libraries are one of the most peculiar institutions of human culture. Added to the strange development that led our species to conserve knowledge acquired by the most diverse methods (from speculation to proven), and accumulating and storing it, came the decision to share it with whoever by placing it at the disposition of all those who wish to consult it. From ancient examples such as the Library of Alexandria to Borges’ fantastical edification, libraries are a refuge where our culture has shown the best of itself.
And for that reason their preservation is so important. The Internet has in many ways rekindled this humanistic project but there are however qualities in physical libraries that until now other models have not been able to substitute, several of which are related to the sense of community that libraries create.
In effect, and as proposed by John Palfrey in his recently published book BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, public libraries are a focus of collective existence in an era in which almost everything tends toward individualism and privatization. With certain exceptions, these places can be considered an oasis where practically anybody can turn up, take a book, connect to the electricity, use the bathrooms or simply be there alone, observing everybody else or feeling that singular atmosphere that is generated in such places.
On the other hand, and regarding knowledge itself, it is likely that in our era we are in the process of forgetting that their generation, preservation and improvement is above all an exercise that is carried out with others. And now that we have services such as email and other remote means of communication, physical contact is incomparable. And it is not about a nostalgic or romantic idea but about maintaining a real point of contact with somebody else who thinks, reads, reconsiders and offers their conclusions for the scrutiny of others.
Lastly, it is also necessary to take into account the conditions in which people have access to information. At this moment in history it is still easier to pick up a book and read it than switch on a computer or a similar gadget and search the Internet. Despite the considerable development of digital technology, its presence in the world can only be considered to be recent, and for which it is not possible to dismiss the effects on our societies of various centuries of printed culture and reading.
What will happen to public libraries? Their future is unclear, but perhaps we could venture at one certainty: their transformation or extinction depends in large part on the use we make of them. And if we choose to abandon them, we will without a doubt lose one of the most invaluable collective belongings that we have had in the history of civilization.
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