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Dr. Layla McCay Headshot

Why We Should Let Go of Nostalgia and Embrace the Evolution of Libraries

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As my cable car smoothly glided towards the old slum areas of Medellin in Colombia, I soared above a hillside lined by basic, tin-roofed abodes... and one gigantic, architecturally intriguing building -- my destination: the Spain library.

In my pre-internet youth, libraries were my personal treasure trove. It wasn't a matter of needing to afford the books I coveted, or being told to choose just one book. It wasn't a matter of rationing myself to what I knew I liked, or what was on a school reading list. It wasn't a matter of begging permission to visit. Libraries were freedom. I wandered around libraries like I was hopping across the clouds of heaven, picking up any book I wanted, submerging myself in its world, forming my own tastes, and learning how to look after property that had been entrusted to me.

It is memories like this, I think, that make people so nostalgically protective over libraries and me so keen to visit every famous library that crosses my path. I had read much of Medellin's library, much-lauded for its architectural finesse, and its huge positive economic and social impact on a previously no-go area of the city. And so, how could I resist?

And yet, libraries are not what they were in my youth. They are evolving. And their evolution is causing consternation to some of those who share my memories and expectations of what a library ought to be. Indeed, only the other day I read Peter Mandell's Huffington Post piece lamenting the loss of the traditional library full of dusty books and severe librarians growling "shhhhhh" if you dared to whisper. And sure enough, the Spain Library in Medellin does lack these qualities.

Wandering inside, I found a beautiful public space full of people taking classes, children playing in soft play areas, people working busily on computers and smartphones, teenagers chatting, a little art... but not too many people actually reading. I was reminded of my visit to the cool new central library in Seattle a few months ago. And indeed the library in my old London neighborhood, Peckham. These modern libraries of course all have books. But what they really have in common -- besides much-lauded architecture and cool views from the top floor -- are bright, airy communal spaces, rows of computers, shelves of DVDs, desks to help people apply for various community services/benefits, and teenagers loudly chatting on bean bags. The books feel rather secondary to these other attributes, and I just can't decide whether to feel sad about it.

On the one hand, I do feel sad. Libraries are a social equalizer, enabling anyone to access great literature (and less great literature), a refuge for anyone of a bookish nature, a place of serenity. Traditionally, libraries have meant that eventually anyone who wants to read any book gets to do so, regardless of their personal circumstances. And what's more, they get to retreat from the chaos and babble of life and sit down in a quiet place to appreciate that book. These new libraries almost deemphasize the book function of the library. These new libraries were built to bring people inside, give them space to meet like-minded people, help them access services, participate in clubs, use computers or the internet for free, all sorts of non-bookish activities... in essence, they are a 'third space', they are today's community centers, and there are far fewer people growling "shhhh."

And yet, for all the criticism, libraries still perform the basic function of connecting books with the people who want to read them, without a financial transaction. I'm conscious that I don't use this function much myself these days. But I just read a comment on a book blog today by someone waiting in anticipation to get to the top of their local library's waiting list for a book they really wanted to read. Just because I personally have the luxury to indulge in instant gratification when it comes to securing the books I want to read certainly doesn't mean everyone is so lucky. Despite the many pressures that they face, it is wonderful that libraries can still stoically provide the fairly profitless facility of getting any book to any person without a financial transaction, and offering a place in which to read it.

Though there will likely always be a call for reveling in the delights of paper and print, and the feel of pages beneath our fingers (and I can assure you, I do), libraries need to move with the times. One way they can achieve their goal of increasing people's access to literature is by increasing the modes by which they can access it. Expanding the options is therefore surely something to celebrate rather than criticize.

The digital world is bringing new paradigms to reading. No longer do people need to access physical books in order to read. With e-reader costs plummeting by the month, and computer and smartphone ownership escalating, all over the world, and cultural preferences evolving, holding a paper book in your hand at a desk is now just one of many valid ways to enjoy it. Traditionalists may (and do) wring their hands and cry that ebooks aren't real books... (I read this on book blogs incessantly) but that's surely like the papyrus scroll readers wringing their hands at the sight of a crass, modern paper bound book. We may appreciate the qualities of an antique ... but increasingly most of us choose to use the more modern version of things in daily life, like phones, televisions, and the like. Books aren't exempt from this trend. I remember long ago reading the book This Place Has No Atmosphere which features a teenage girl moving to the moon and only being able to access books from a shared desktop computer in the school library (I remember this vividly as it struck horror in my heart). The author's imagination didn't stretch to a future of hand-held electronic books. Yet, here we are. And who knows where we may go.

At the Library of Congress National Book Festival this weekend, Mario Livio stated that people are reading less these days. Yet Margaret Atwood, across in a different tent, attested that people are reading more... but they are also reading differently. The reading and writing requirements for interacting in the digital world are incentivizing literacy for young people. And eBooks, she said, provide the portability and instant access that is valued. It opens the door to other reading formats, like books. For educators, it's a new 'in' to engage young people in reading.

Libraries were once invented as repositories of books, and evolved as places of learning, and they still are. But they need funding, and they need customers, and for that, they need to be relevant to as many people as possible. As such, they are evolving and innovating with the times and providing valuable services their community wants and needs.

Adding value doesn't have to mean diminishing the previous value. I think it is heartening that libraries are finding ways to survive -- and flourish. It is worthy that they provide digital access to those who need and want it. It is inspiring that they can attract and nudge diverse and unconventional customers towards reading. It is entrepreneurial that they can help fund free services through facilities like coffee shops. It is impressive that they embrace, inspire, support, and encourage people who appreciate books in any format and hook them up with any book they may want to read, and for free. It is amazing that while they do all this, they are impacting on the social and economic fabric of the areas in which they reside. And it is imperative that to achieve all this, they can evolve without being constricted by nostalgia.

Of course, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. We readers know how to read, or we soon figure it out. In each modern library I've visited, for every hyperactive-teenager-attracting digital gadget, there is still a quiet nook where a schoolgirl (or grown woman) can take possession of an extravagant adventure of books (be they paper or virtual) and create her own little corner of heaven.

Layla writes the book blog Reading Shoes