In the 21st century, what’s a library for?
Once upon a time, there were no books… no writing. But there was knowledge. There was wisdom. It lived in people’s heads and was shared through the spoken word. You literally had to be there. Tribal rememberers carried the lineage of families back hundreds of years. Stories were shared and embellished around the fire. Shamans danced and tranced themselves beyond the veil, human phone booths to connect their neighbors with the world of spirit.
Plato worried that the popularization of writing would ruin the human mind. An educated man could recite at length from the “Iliad” — all through memory. Meanwhile, knowledge was being etched into tablets or scratched onto papyrus. Soon, these were being stored in something new … libraries. When the library of Nineveh was burned by the Persians, ironically the heat fired the clay tablets and preserved them for millennia. Thus we have a chance to read “Gilgamesh”, the oldest story in the world.
The idea that ordinary people could access books is relatively modern. Hand-copied books cost a fortune. Even the printing press still priced books out of the reach of ordinary people. So the idea of a public library where a sizeable chunk of available knowledge was there to borrow or read — for free — became a cornerstone of modern civilization – and a profoundly democratic innovation.
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All this is well and good, but in the internet age, one has to ask what a library is for. Information can be accessed instantly without ever leaving home. So do we still need libraries?
I had to ask myself that a year ago when I was invited to join the board of the Hyannis Public Library. After 45 years of teaching, I’m a pretty bookish guy. Retired now, I have more time to serve in new ways. Was I being asked to join an institution that’s as long in the tooth as I am?
The answer is no. To serve modern communities, libraries have reimagined themselves. First of all, not all information is equal. Whether in print, online or heard over the back fence, some assertions are more grounded in fact than others. So we can ask librarians, “Where could I find some reliable information on this … a good book about that … other sources?”
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In time, a relationship develops around the librarian’s knowledge of what their resources are and of different patrons’ personal needs and interests.
For our elderly, sometimes with failing vision or other disabilities, libraries offer readings, reviews of current events and a unifying companionship in what for so many of us is an increasingly lonely and empty time.
At the other end of the spectrum, moms bring their little kids to discover the brand-new world of books and hear stories read to them in different voices than their parents’.
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All this is a hint of where libraries’ futures lie. The role of the library as a purveyor of knowledge and wisdom is coming full circle. With information flooding off our screens — often unfiltered for accuracy, impersonal and argumentative — modern libraries offer the mediation of sympathetic human beings. As I think of where the Hyannis Public Library is going, it’s a matter of creating civic spaces where neighbors can come to hear authors talk about their process … teachers and others share their information and expertise … public forums and presentations.
It’s not just books anymore. Our Hyannis Public Library offers academic programs for area school children for tutoring, mentoring on special projects and just a safe and quiet place to study and hang out.
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In addition, look for nutritional programs, cooking and health, a new Play Oasis for children and outdoor programming (a partnership with the Cape Cod Toy Library), multilingual programs including a series of professional storytellers, a “crop-swap” program with food available, a book store and programs on Zoom for folks on vacation or unable to visit in person.
In short, libraries are becoming the modern equivalent of the old fireside where knowledge and wisdom are shared in person, face to face. The brains in the building will always be our libraries’ communal gift and unifying mission. And it’s free — a public service.
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Our Hyannis Library has a new director, Antonia Stephens: sharp, funny, smart and innovative. I joined her energetic and creative board to be part of what happens next. This is the central library for the most populous and urban part of Cape Cod. They’ve got ambitious plans for programming and renovations. More people are about to be served in more ways than ever before. “WATCH THIS SPACE,” the signs say. Better yet, come round to Main Street and see for yourself.
Lawrence Brown is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times. Email him at [email protected]