Books and Libraries

Over the last month or so, the fate and future of the Mighty Chester Fritz Library has been the topic of much discussion on the beautiful campus of the University of North Dakota. 

One of the great things about having a relatively long running blog is that I have some ready-made made content from the archive about libraries. You can read my thoughts here, and a response here, and my response to that response here.

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If you’re in North Dakota, I would also urge you to check out Micah Bloom’s exhibit titled Codex at the North Dakota Museum of Art (and more here). Without giving too much away, the exhibit is a collection of books collected after the Souris River flood that ravaged Minot, North Dakota in 2011. Bloom has arranged with archaeological precision. The exhibit calls on us to question the nature of books as objects by looking at them in a range of contexts from a clinical lab-like installation to a book cemetery. The answers that the exhibit provides are not neat and tidy, but range from the sentimental absurdity of the book cemetery to overly detached and clinical space of the laboratory. The death of books is strangely moving, but also reassuring. The disappearance of the codex, like the scroll before it, will not mark the end of civilization.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love books. In fact, I love books enough to have spent most of my adult life reading them, writing them, and most recently publishing them. At the same time, I can relate to Bloom’s ambivalence toward books as objects. As we barrel through the so-called “Digital Age,” people have begun to see books as endangered objects and begun to venerate them not only as a convenient form for the transmission of knowledge, but as sacred objects whose very physicality (touch, smell, and even sound) infuses them special authority. 

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Some of the ideas explored in Bloom’s exhibit parallel those that Richard Rothaus and I discussed in our podcast last month in the context of looting and destruction of antiquities in Syria. The sight of destroyed antiquities rouses even the most clinical archaeologist from their well-ordered laboratory and forces them to engage with objects on an emotional level.

The conversation about the future of the library has caused a similar kind of emotional response from faculty, students, and the administration. Our library, like the books destroyed by the Souris River flood, is an ambivalent place. It is not strong enough (in the humanities at least) to be a research library, but is too large and too traditional to be seen as simply an undergraduate library. Moreover, the library is dated. It has the stuffiness of a traditional research library and lacks the amenities common to most campus main libraries. We don’t have a coffee shop, climbing wall, many group study spaces, or the laid back environment that has transformed libraries into the new student union. Our library wants desperately to be a serious place set apart from the frivolous needs of the ephemeral undergraduate student, but this seriousness is a front largely designed to encourage students, faculty, and visitors to take knowledge seriously. 

The Might Chester Fritz should not try to hard to be a serious place. It is not a research library, but it has value for campus as a place to gather and as a source of access to a world knowledge set apart not by its appearance in sacred codices, but by copyright restrictions, hyper-abundance, and complex search algorithms. The library of the 21st century (which is still the future here in North Dakota) will encourage students and faculty to wrest knowledge from this complex network of sources, combine it in new ways, and break old limits on how knowledge containers are used, disseminated, and preserved. 

In short, the library of the future has to be a place of PLAY. It must be a place where students and faculty feel comfortable transgressing the staid mores and serious comportment of traditional knowledge preservation and dissemination. If that means that the old, solid walls of the library must give way to campus wide access or that shelves of scarcely read volumes must give way to collaborative study areas, climbing walls, and coffee shops, then back up the moving trucks, applaud the contractors, and contact Micah Bloom to document and study the remains of Library As Book House. 

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