The world has changed and I seem to hear a lot of talk about what the future of libraries should be or if we even need them at all, seeing as how Google and Siri can answer all our questions. Of course, those who care—those who fondly remember libraries from their youth—are quick to defend their continued existence. After all, there is nothing quite like the feel of a real book in your hands. Plus there is the availability of high-speed internet for all of those who might not have a connection at home. And just to show we’re keeping with the times, let’s use these conveniently located public buildings as places where events can be held such as movies and family game night.
I have my own suggestion for the future of libraries: it involves disco balls and techno music.
If you mistook my sarcasm for seriousness, even for the briefest of moments, I understand. It seems as though there is a mad rush to convert libraries into anything and everything other than what a library should be. A library is a quiet place with books.
Sure, many of us have memories of getting the glare from a librarian with her finger to her lips, demanding quiet. It seems like such an incredibly unhip thing to do in this day and age. But please remember there were times you were reprimanded for running around screaming in church, too.
Librarians maintained a sacred temple for the holy silence. Children were expected to learn to control themselves, to observe a common tradition, to demonstrate that they were capable of respect in a world that has precious little of that. Adults too needed to show that the library was something different from a saloon. It was the place where the knowledge of humanity was stored and learned. Such a thing demands observance of the customs, a place like this is one where we should show reverence.
The librarian shushed us because a library is not a place to voice our thoughts but to learn and contemplate the thoughts of the greatest minds of this and other eras.
What good is book without a quiet place to read it? And in today’s world the quiet places are vanishing. There is little wilderness left, places where one can go and be alone without the sounds of others. Churches too no longer play the prominent role in society the way they once did. And even in our places of worship giant televisions have crept into these places of prayer and tranquility.
The world needs a sanctuary for silence, a place where people can go and exercise their minds on concentrated thought rather than multitasking. The average person needs such a place when one cannot get your oil changed or a bite to eat without being inundated with television.
It is only in a book, a real tangible book, where one can have solitude and total immersion. It is only with pages made of paper that a reader and a writer can truly come together and be of one mind. An e-reader might have its advantages, but it also has its distractions. An electronic reader is always tempting a reader with ideas of playing a game, checking the time, or connecting with social media.
It is not easy to completely lose oneself in a book, but it is worth it. Like any other sacred practice, it requires certain rites be observed. And the primary rite for communion with the written word is solitude, the kind that silence best provides.
That is the function of a library, its justification for existence. It is a place where the centuries may be bridged, hidden knowledge come to light, where we can come to know both our world and ourselves. There is no need to worry about what a library should be in the future; the world needs that place of intersection between silence and books more now than perhaps ever before.