Thursday, July 17, 2008

If It's Not by Tolstoy, Hold On to Your Rubles

Libraries remain valuable social institutions, though their roles are changing. Many people think of libraries as "free internet access" or "free wi-fi" and couldn't care less about books, though many people think of libraries as places to socialize, to get books and DVDs, and to go to merely as a destination.

I was shocked a couple of years ago when I learned a fellow worker with small children didn't know where the neighborhood branch of the local public library was. Turns out any time his kids wanted a book, he went out and bought it for them. Same for his own reading.

This is one of the big changes of the last couple of decades: B&N as a destination, a place to look at books, to socialize. Part of it is a generational change: people in their twenties got used to getting an expensive cup of coffee and hanging out at the bookstore. Another part is institutional: libraries did not change enough to stay popular with newer generations. Yet another part is simply progress, change, the tide of social history: libraries and librarians are not highly regarded, libraries seen as stodgy places one has to be quiet, to follow rules, and to do as one is told, librarians as overbearing women who are quick to reprimand and slow to warm up.

Ever since I was a little boy, we made regular visits to the library, where I would sate my reading passion of the moment. Robert Louis Stevenson's works, the now largely forgotten Henry Ware novels of Joseph A. Altsheler, the Bruce Catton histories of the Civil War – I read them all.

B&N became part of the culture of acquisitiveness, of displaying one's ability to spend, what I'd call the Reagan culture.

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