Who knew dusty shelves and pin-drop silence had such an intimate connection to the health of the planet? At the recent Vancouver International Writers (and Readers!) Festival, I heard Alberto Manguel the author of “A History of Reading”, “The Library at Night”, and much, much more, speak passionately about how libraries impact civilizations. His energy about the written word (he has 30,000 books in his own library) left me reeling with big ideas and pages of notes to contemplate. Here are five reasons below (and in no specific order) on why libraries should be thought of as the nexus of social change.
1) They structure the world
By dividing the world in specific ways, libraries impose a vision of how the world “is”. Perhaps then, the way to reconfigure the world is to reorder libraries. This possibility is intriguing, but regardless of the way we structure our libraries, they cannot escape their inescapable role as censors. Indeed, every library in effect implies the existence of a shadow library of everything that is not included in that space – things that do exist someplace else. Even the very act of choosing a book is one of censoring; because it excludes all other books from us at that present time. What knowledge aren’t we exposed to? The answer to this question is at the heart of social change.
2) They are a place of resistance
The written word is a place of power. Made evident by book-burning, a common act throughout history, because when conquered peoples are able to retain their own language and culture, they are given the capacity to resist. Book preserving and book burning still occur today. We learn of lost books through the tiny scraps they leave behind that let us know they lived. Most importantly though, when we read a book we become a library ourselves. We can tell others what we have read, and even if the physical books we own and/or have access to are destroyed, nothing can destroy the knowledge that we possess internally. Books foster within us a place of hope that enables the resistance of power.
3) Nothing beats a good book- not even Google
Mr Manguel spoke in his lecture about how the worldwide web is not the same as the great libraries of the past because although it is useful, it is not magical. The feeling of holding a book in your hand, touching the binding, the pages, holding the text itself – this is something the computer screen cannot replicate. The most famous library of all time, the illustrious library of Alexandria, was a library that sought to contain all knowledge. However, since then, we have devolved to the worldwide web, the library that will hold anything.
Alberto Manguel argued that the Internet is not equivalent to physical libraries because it represents the accumulation of knowledge, but not knowledge itself. In other words, it is only by digesting and processing information that we learn, the actual accumulation of information out there does not actually signify increased learning. Making the Internet even more problematic is the fact that access is asymmetrical across the world. It depends on access to electricity, as well as knowledge of English for the most part, and a government that will allow access to the information portals of the world (think Google negotiations with China). Of course, this is true of access to books as well, as many people are illiterate, and books come with a hefty price tag. My thoughts: While Alberto Manguel is right about the “magic factor’ of books, the access to information the internet enables holds exciting possibilities for places and people that may be unable to access diverse books. Once access is established, the information available on the Internet may be greater than what is otherwise available.
4) Contain the knowledge of human civilization
When the National Library of Iraq was looted under the protection of Anglo-American forces in 2003 we all lost irreplaceable relics of the past. This is a tragedy because a library is the repository of past memories, and the key place where knowledge of the past can be gained. Losing one is a loss for us all. Finding out what is gone, helps us move forward in new directions.
5) Libraries are symbols of faith and hope and struggle
A library is a place of knowledge and hope, and sometimes the smallest libraries are those that emit the greatest light. Alberto Manguel told marvelous stories of courage and resilience, stories of books being smuggled into concentration camps, and people protecting books. The fact that in places where humanity seems extinguished, books are discussed and cherished, speaks volumes of the importance of libraries to us all.
All in all, whether enabling the resistance of power, keeping cultures alive, or shaping the way we see the world, the library is a dynamic place. Across time and space, it is the place where new possibilities are envisioned, hope is generated, and the memories and knowledge of the past is stored. Amongst those dusty shelves is a marvelous world waiting to be explored.