The writing's on the library wall - and I don't mind

25th February 2011 at 00:00

Around 10 years ago some strange things started to happen to my college's library. For a start the name of the place changed. It wasn't called a library any more - it was to be known as the learning centre. (Interestingly, though, the people who ran it weren't rebranded as learning centerians, having to content themselves instead with the dusty old tag of librarian.)

But it wasn't only the sign above the door that changed. Gradually but inexorably the stacks of books dwindled, replaced by row after row of gleaming new computers. Rather to the dismay of traditionalists, these proved more popular with students than those cherished old volumes had ever been.

For a while it was a contest: computers versus books; new against old. But then the new end of the seesaw tilted decisively upwards, so that now the learning centre is a place for computer use where a few books just happen to be stored.

But this hasn't only been happening in colleges. As the movement to preserve public libraries demonstrates, similar things have been going on across the board. I ran into a "save our libraries" campaigner the other day, and I have to say I wasn't entirely convinced. Perhaps because I had seen all those students voting with their feet - or their mouse fingers - I found myself wondering whether the library hadn't been a great idea for the 19th and 20th centuries rather than the 21st.

Some of his arguments hit home. I can see that being in a room full of books does have the potential to inspire a love of them in children - or at least in some of them. And books promote understanding. They deal with topics in the sort of depth that a quick scan through a website simply can't.

I like to think I first learned to use my brain through reading adult tomes when I was still only on the fringes of adulthood. And where did all this precocious reading about the great social issues of the day - apartheid and capital punishment are just two of the topics I recall embracing - take place? In the "grown-up" section of Staines public library, of course.

Another of the campaigner's points concerned books as "objects". The look, the feel, sometimes even the smell of the thing are experiences in their own right. But this was where we began to part company. For me the key to a book is its words. Writers scratch them out with pens or tap them on to the blank pages of word-processing programmes. Books are not unique objects like paintings or architecture. Once written they can be translated into any one of a number of formats - or "platforms", to use the jargon.

It is entirely possible that we are living in the twilight years of the book as we have come to know it, and that technological developments over the next two decades will do away with the need for both libraries and books in their present form. Who knows what the descendents of the Kindle and the iPad will be capable of doing for us by 2030?

Certainly, the great revolution we have already experienced in information "delivery" has largely passed the library by. If we went back, rather than forward, 20 years we would find ourselves in a world where any quest for knowledge involved a physical trawl through large numbers of (largely out of date) reference books. Yet now we can have all that and more delivered to us in the matter of a minute. The answer to almost any question - from the lifespan of the earthworm to the constituent parts of a nuclear bomb - is no more than a few mouse clicks away.

So I confess that, with a computer on my desk, I rarely go into my college library - sorry, learning centre - any more. And I have not had occasion to visit a public library since before the turn of the century. I put this to my friend the campaigner: how often do you go into that building you are fighting so hard to keep?

There was a long pause. Enough said.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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