Friday, July 22, 2011

A Kind of Time Machine, Part I

With the current technological revolution in e-books and e-reading devices, it's easy to wonder: will libraries someday disappear?

Not likely.

Some libraries have kept up with technology quite well so far. In our local area, for example, numerous public libraries have computer workstations, offer several downloadable books, and even allow you to access other library system catalogs across the state. You can easily go online at home, request books from a university library hundreds of miles away, and pick up your book a week later without any human interaction at all.

Yet despite the growing shift towards more and more e-books, there is still something special about holding a paper book in your hands. There is something unique about the experience that forces you to slow down, take in the patterns of words on the pages, and pause in anticipation as you come to the end of the chapter...waiting to see how the author carries the momentum forward.

Inside a library there is also the experience of being surrounded by an immense amount of collected knowledge. No one walking through the doors of the library will ever be able to read everything on all the shelves, but at least they know it is there. It is knowledge in a physical form...lined up on shelf after shelf that sometimes stretches as far as the eye can see.

Something is lost when an entire building full of books is condensed into a handheld device. Yes, the devices are amazing feats of engineeering, but the physical sense of interacting with books and libraries is lost as a result.

Inside a library, too, you can pull out several books at once, set them before you on a desk, and switch between them with ease. In many ways, stepping inside a library is like stepping inside of a time machine. You can shift with ease between the centuries, set foot in different lands and cultures, and even travel to distant planets. Each book you pull off the shelf is like pulling a lever, and in some cases, like Doctor Who, who knows where you'll end up.

What do you think? Do you think libraries will be going away anytime soon? How would you compare your reading experiences onscreen vs. spending time inside an library with a stack of books?

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