In the last few weeks, I have spent a lot of time in the Enema U library. This is hardly surprising, as I have spent a significant amount of my life in libraries and bookstores. (And in bars—the majority of the rest of my life has been foolishly wasted. As proof of my love of book collections, I can offer this photo of the library cards from my desk drawer. Note that these do not include the ones currently in my wallet.)
What I was utterly surprised to find in the library last week were patrons sitting, laughing, and eating pizza. For some reason, the library has added a coffee shop and now allows food and beverages among the books. I earnestly desired to kick over the tables and drive out the livestock, but I had forgotten my whip.
The library reminded me of the late Border’s Bookstores, where I always had trouble shopping for books while being forced to listen to the dreadful music blasting from the loudspeakers. Personally, I am convinced that the main reason the entire chain went bankrupt was that no one contemplated purchasing a book while listening to a recording of someone breaking up a pillow fight in a sorority house by beating a bass drum with a cat.
Librarians are trying desperately to find some way to keep their jobs, or at least to keep the libraries even remotely relevant. I don’t blame them, since for some reason, the public now believes that libraries serve three main functions: First, for warehousing of old paper that has not yet been scanned. Second, as a place to help the dwindling number of people who lack internet in their homes to keep current on Facebook. Third, as Public Bathrooms for the homeless.
Some libraries are reducing the number of books they hold in order to make room for meeting rooms, computer labs, and various forms of work rooms. I’ve read that some libraries are adding rooms with art supplies and 3-D printers for patrons to use. At least one library has added a workshop full of tools that can be checked out by modelers, so-called “maker spaces”.
If libraries are my temples, then count me as an orthodox conservative worshipper. I would prefer my library to have more books and a lot less coffee. I cannot understand why libraries sell books, but I must own a hundred such volumes stamped Ex-Libris. It should be illegal for a library to sell a book: they are stealing from future patrons. (Don’t tell me it is a space problem. If you have room for that damn coffee bar, you have room for more books.)
The greatest library of the past is the Library of Alexandria, which supposedly burned. Actually, most scholars today believe that the library eventually was destroyed by the same forces that kill libraries today: a lack of support and declining public interest. When Julius Caesar was courting Cleopatra, she supposedly told him to take as many books home from the great library as he wanted. Caesar supposedly took thousands of scrolls, wanting to build a great library in Rome.
While Julius Caesar wouldn’t live long enough to build his library, after his death Asinius Pollo took up the task, building the first Roman library with the collection equally divided into works in Latin and Greek. He added statues, paintings, and reading rooms. Our concept of what a library should look like comes largely from the early Roman libraries. Rome built lots of libraries, even adding them to the public baths so that even the poor had access to books. By 350 A.D., Rome had 39 library buildings.
As Rome slowly crumbled, so did its libraries. By 400 A.D., Rome was slowly closing her libraries. Over the last decade, libraries all over Europe and America have shuttered their doors, as well. (Recently, a junior high school librarian told me that over her 35-year tenure in the school library, her budget and the number of books in the collection had decreased every single year. When the taxpayers voted in a large bond issue for the school library, the funds were used to turn some of the library space over to building new offices for the school administration.)
Libraries in America got off to something of a rocky start. Though Benjamin Franklin started the first American lending library in 1731, libraries were still both rare and small in the new country when the British burned the Library of Congress in 1815 (along with the National Archives). To this day, the largest destroyers of books in American history have been the British Army, Tennessee school boards, and various evangelical churches.
The great boom in American libraries occurred at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, largely because of the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, who as a poor young immigrant had educated himself at a public library. Carnegie eventually built 2500 libraries across America, including “Colored Libraries” for the South. (Jim Crow laws in places like Mississippi forbade library and school books read by “coloreds” to be read by whites. Those laws were still in force during my childhood. To this day, many Southern states continue to treat education as a communicable disease. Today, in order to not appear discriminatory, the same states have eliminated the problem by not teaching anyone how to read.)
From roughly 1900 to the end of World War I, huge libraries were built in New York City, Philadelphia, and at Harvard and Columbia University, and at the Army War College. When libraries grew to hold millions of volumes, old wooden bookshelves would no longer suffice—there was simply no longer enough space. The Snead and Company—manufacturers of bookshelves, solved the problem by building heavy duty steel bookshelves with adjustable racks. These bookcases rested on large marble slabs and were tall enough to help support the upper floors of the library. Despite having adjustable shelves—enabling frames to be adjusted to hold more bookshelves—the bookshelves become more stable after being loaded with books, becoming an integral part of the building’s superstructure.
These huge heavy duty libraries were necessary to hold the rapidly expanding number of books that libraries housed. (Or, in the case of Enema U, due to the rapidly expanding bulk of the dean of the library.)
For fifty years, the Snead bookshelves were synonymous with large libraries. They are the basis of the Library of Congress and they hold the ten million volumes of the library at Harvard University. But, they are no longer modern, they take up too much room, and they limit the function of a library to only—gasp!—holding books. When the main library of New York City decided to move a large part of its collection to New Jersey in order to provide space for more meeting rooms….well, it couldn’t. The structural engineers who studied the problem discovered that if the books were removed from the huge Snead bookshelves, the building would collapse.
Which brings us to the lesson I sincerely hope librarians all over the world will take to heart: When you take the books out, the library will collapse—in more ways than one.