Wednesday, March 28, 2007

To The Library

I must confess that I like libraries. I have also had the good fortune to spend time in some of the best libraries in the English speaking world. Regrettably, my University library is not one of the better libraries. However, it is still a library, so I have some fondness for it, whatever it's shortcomings.

These days, it seems that going to the library is a much less common activity than it used to be. This is, in part, due to the influence of technology. From my office, I can see whether a particular volume is available. Also, on-line subscriptions to services like JSTOR and EBSCOHOST mean that journal articles can be conjured up and printed out, without having to wander about the stacks, looking for the correct volume. Although this is convenient, there is a certain arcane pleasure that is lost in the process.

As I am a somewhat old fashioned type, I usually try and make sure that I take reasonably regular trips to the library. There are some things that can happen in a library that cannot happen on-line. The kind of thing I have in mind is that occasional joyous serendipity, when one notices a volume of interest, close to the volume one is looking for. There is also the pleasure to be found in just browsing through a particular section of interest. It is for these reasons I like to haunt the library from time to time.

Recently though, I have noticed a subtle change is taking place. A few years ago, it was common to find undergraduates, graduate students and occasionally faculty members, sitting at the tables that are scattered around the stacks. Sometimes the students might be asleep, but no matter, it was life in the library. The serious researchers would occasionally look up, perhaps say 'hello', maybe ask a question. That too made the experience pleasant. It is nice to meet fellow travelers.

However, today when I went into the library, I noticed something different, something that I had not noticed before. Close to the circulation desk is a large area that has slowly been growing. It is where all the general use computer are. This area was packed with people. There were even people standing in line, to wait there turn. I immediately headed up the stairs to the stacks. Once I got there, I appeared to be alone. As I wandered looking for the book I wanted, all the desks were empty. I might as well have been on the Mary Celeste, for the lack of people about.

Unfortunately, it turned out that I had written the call number for the book I wanted down wrong. I ended up in a section on Islamic philosophy, books on Theosophy and all sorts of other curious things, very remote from the subject I was interested in. I went to check the call number again on the computers by the stairs. However they seemed to have disappeared. The cables were there, coiled up neatly, but the machines themselves were nowhere to be found.

I was thus forced to trek back down the stairs to the main catalogue machines. Once again I was in the busy, populated area close to the computers. The contrast from the stacks was palpable. Once I found the correct call number, I returned to the the empty world of the stacks and found the book.

While I was locating the book this second time, I did manage to locate two people hidden amongst the stacks. One appeared to be an overseas students, who was asleep. The other was a young man watching YouTube videos on his laptop, with headphone, apparently enjoying the free wireless access.

What I would like to know though is what has happened to the little community of scholars that used to inhabit the stacks? Perhaps I just hit the library on a bad day. After all, the weather was nice. Perhaps people were giving the library a miss today, for that reason. I do hope that this is the case. It seems to me it would be more than a little sad if our library were to become little more than an Internet cafe for the students and a place to store books.

There are few enough true scholars on our campus. It would be shame if they were all to end up closeted in their individual offices, away from the stacks. In some sense, the library used to be the heart of any University. Perhaps I am just old fashioned in hoping that this will remain the case. For all the added convenience now available, I will continue to make my trips to the library. I will also encourage my scholarly friends to do likewise.

The CP


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