In the 21st century, what is a library for?
Once upon a time, there were no books…no writing. But there were acquaintances. There was wisdom. He lived in people’s heads and was shared by words. You literally had to be there. Tribal memories have carried the lineage of families for hundreds of years. Stories were shared and embellished around the fire. Shamans danced and transected themselves beyond the veil, human phone booths to connect their neighbors with the spirit world.
Plato feared that the popularization of writing would ruin the human spirit. A learned man could recite at length the “Iliad” – throughout memory. Meanwhile, knowledge was engraved on tablets or engraved on papyrus. Soon these were stored in something new… Ilibraries. When the Nineveh library was burned by the Persians, ironically the heat pulled the clay tablets and preserved them for millennia. Thus, we have the chance to read “Gilgamesh“, the oldest story in the world.
The idea that ordinary people could access books is relatively modern. Books copied by hand cost a fortune. Even the printing press still priced books beyond the reach of ordinary people. So the idea of a public library where a significant portion of available knowledge was there to borrow or read – free – has become a cornerstone of modern civilization – and a profoundly democratic innovation.
This is all well and good, but in the age of the internet, you have to wonder what a library is for. Information is instantly accessible without ever leaving home. Do we still need libraries?
I must have asked myself the question a year ago when I was asked to join the Hyannis Public Library Board. After 45 years of teaching, I’m quite a bookish guy. Now retired, I have more time to serve in new ways. Have I been asked to join an institution as long as I am?
The answer is no. To serve modern communities, libraries have reinvented themselves. First of all, not all information is created equal. Whether in print, online, or heard over the fence, some claims have more merit than others. So we can ask librarians, “Where can I find reliable information on this…a good book on this…other sources?”
Over time, a relationship develops around the librarian’s knowledge of their resources and the personal needs and interests of different users.
For our elderly, sometimes visually impaired or with other disabilities, libraries offer reading, current affairs reviews and unifying companionship in what for many of us is an increasingly lonely and empty time.
On the other end of the spectrum, mums are taking their little ones through the whole new world of books and hearing stories read to them in a different voice than their parents.
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All of this is a clue to the future of libraries. The role of the library as a provider of knowledge and wisdom is coming full circle. With information spilling over our screens – often unfiltered for its accuracy, impersonal and argumentative – modern libraries offer the mediation of sympathetic human beings. Thinking about where the Hyannis Public Library is heading, it’s about creating civic spaces where neighbors can come and hear authors talk about their process…teachers and others share their information and expertise…forums audiences and presentations.
It’s not just about books anymore. Our Hyannis Public Library offers academic programs for area school children for tutoring, mentoring on special projects, and just a safe, quiet place to study and relax.
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Plus, look for nutrition, cooking and health programs, a new Play Oasis for kids and outdoor programming (a partnership with the Cape Cod Toy Library), multilingual programs including a series of professional storytellers, a “culture exchange” program with food available, a bookstore and programs on Zoom for those on vacation or unable to travel 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. Building brains will always be the common gift and unifying mission of our libraries. And his free — a public service.
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Our Hyannis Library has a new director, Antonia Stephens: sharp, funny, smart and innovative. I have joined its energetic and creative Board of Directors to be part of what happens next. It is the central library of the most populated and urban part of Cape Cod. They have 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 to Main Street and see for yourself.
Lawrence Brown is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times. Email him at [email protected]