Last week, The New Yorker ran an article on Google's ambition to put every book ever published onto an online, searcheable database, in other words, to create a complete, infinitely expandable library. The article focused on copyright challenges to this so-called "universal digital library" and on the possibility that a logjam around interpretations of "fair use" might produce an unhappy settlement and an incomplete database. But I'm sure the kinks will get ironed out. It's like putting a man on the moon. If we can do such a big thing, it will get done.
As I day-dreamed about having all of human knowledge at my fingertips, I typed the word "library" into the Google search box and clicked on the 6th result, the Wikipedia entry for "library". There I read about clay-tablets in ancient Sumer and temple records on papyrus in Egypt. I wondered if the ancient Sumerians sunk into their cuneiform to feel connected to their ancestors the way I do with print in libraries. I looked at pictures of an ancient, chained book at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and at an anonymous stacks, with aisles of books shooting to a vanishing point. This last image brought me back to feeling overwhelmed in college, so I made a quick escape by back-browsing to the Google results page and clicking on the third result, The New York Public Library. After declining a pop-up survey, I found myself watching a slide-show alternating between sleek ads for library events and a flat logo based on the famous stone lions flanking the entrance. These quick motion graphics did not seem to represent well the largest marble structure ever attempted in the United States, a Beaux-Arts behemoth meant to appear timeless rather than timely. I wondered who else was visiting this site now, fifty people maybe, all reacting to the same thing. I was having a public experience in private. The real New York Public Library offered the opposite: a private experience in public.
A few years ago, I took my older son to see Ray Bradbury speak in a library in Studio City. The author remembered out loud about his early days as a struggling writer and described his pleasure writing in libraries, "surrounded by my loves."
When I was little, my mother used to take me and my brother to the library two evenings a week. I went to the humor section, where I'd pick out books by Art Buchwald, S.J. Perlman and James Thurber. Every once in a while, I would find evidence of previous readers in these books: a dog-eared page, a phone number in the margins, a squashed bug or smudge or some unidentifiable indication of the book having been read. It was a warm feeling knowing others had been in these mental spaces before me. I think what Ray Bradbury meant by "surrounded by my loves" was not just the feeling of being surrounded by books -- and by extension their authors -- but of being close to the readers who left traces of themselves inside them. This sloppy human connectedness will not survive the universal digital library. I can't wait to be able to find any book I want on the Internet, but I'm afraid I'll lose my need to go to the library and that feeling of being with people in the past.