As long as people have been keeping records, recording stories and facts, they have been compiling collections. Libraries are the repositories of culture and knowledge. Ancient libraries contained clay tablets, which gave way to scrolls, then papyrus, then parchment, which led to books. Since books were invented, other forms to arise include microforms, audio forms of various types, CD ROMs, and finally the Internet. The Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, complained in 378, when the Roman Empire was waning, that “…libraries are closing forever, like tombs (Batley).” Does this sound familiar?
In his book, Fool’s Gold: Why the Internet is No Substitute for a Library, Mark Herring paints a fairly grim picture of the future of libraries. Basically, he posits that a confluence of events and attitudes have come together to bring about the demise (unless something is done, and soon) of the library as we know it. First, people mistakenly believe that they can find anything on the Internet. Second, people don’t read or enjoy reading, or read well any more. This point is also made by Doug Johnson in a blog post entitled, “Libraries for a Post Literate Society I.” However, what Herring greets with great trepidation, Johnson treats as the next step in cultural evolution. After all, he points out, we were drawing pictures to get meaning across long before words came along, now we are just getting back to our roots. Johnson freely admits that for many people print reading is limited to short personal or functional pieces such as signage or blog entries. In other words, people do not need to read words anymore, or at least not much. Herring is more than a little alarmed by this turn of events. He mourns the decrease of reading as it harkens, to his mind, a decrease in critical thinking (14-15).
Reading is the Foundation
In examining the history of those who have prematurely announced the death of libraries, Herring states that the saving grace has always been that libraries were still valued as the store houses of knowledge, as opposed to random collections of facts. Now, he maintains, the current younger generation prefers information in sound bites, small and easily digestible, and that misinformation and bias are not important to people when seeking information. In fact, Herring writes, people will swallow misinformation and bias without question as long as it is delivered over the Internet (31). Herring’s contention is that the basic problem lies in the fact that libraries have let go of their purpose. He claims that the main purpose of libraries is reading and equates reading with books (Herring 13).
While reading is important to libraries, to view reading as including only the printed page is short sighted at best. This is not to say that libraries should unanimously throw out the books to go digital as Fred Heath of the University of Texas at Austin did with 90,000 undergraduate books (Herring 16). Online reading, though...