Plato, in the “Timaeus,” says that when one of the wisest men of Greece, the statesman Solon, visited Egypt, he was told by an old priest that the Greeks were like mere children because they possessed no truly ancient traditions or notions “gray with time.” In Egypt, the priest continued proudly, “there is nothing great or beautiful or remarkable that is done here, or in your country, or in any other land that has not been long since put into writing and preserved in our temples.”
Such colossal ambition coalesced under the Ptolemaic dynasty. In the third century B.C., more than half a century after Plato wrote his dialogues, the kings ordered that every book in the known world be collected and placed in the great library they had founded in Alexandria. Hardly anything is known of it except its fame: neither its site (it was perhaps a section of the House of the Muses) nor how it was used, nor even how it came to its end. Yet, as one of history’s most distinguished ghosts, the Library of Alexandria became the archetype of all libraries.
Libraries come in countless shapes and sizes. They can be like the Library of Congress or as modest as that of the children’s concentration camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the older girls were in charge of eight volumes that had to be hidden every night so that the Nazi guards wouldn’t confiscate them. They can be built from books found in the garbage, like the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., set up in 1980 by the 24-year-old Aaron Lansky from volumes discarded by the younger generations who no longer spoke the tongue of their elders, or they can be catalogued in the mind of their exiled readers, in the hope of resurrection, like the libraries plundered by the Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories of Palestine. It is in the nature of libraries to adapt to changing circumstances and threats, and all libraries exist in constant danger of being destroyed by war, vermin, fire, water or the idiocies of bureaucracy.
But today, the principal danger facing libraries comes not from threats like these but from ill-considered changes that may cause libraries to lose their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.
Since the time of Alexandria, libraries have held a symbolic function. For the Ptolemaic kings, the library was an emblem of their power; eventually it became the encompassing symbol of an entire society, a numinous place where readers could learn the art of attention which, Hannah Arendt argued, is a definition of culture. But since the mid-20th century, libraries no longer seem to carry this symbolic meaning and, as mere storage rooms of a technology deemed defunct, are not considered worthy of proper preservation and funding.
In most of the Anglo-Saxon world (but not significantly in most Latin American countries) the number of libraries has been decreasing. In Britain, close to 350 libraries have been shut down in the past decade. In Canada, the public libraries of Toronto were threatened with closure by ex-Mayor Robert Ford and saved in extremis thanks to a campaign led by Margaret Atwood. In the United States, while the number of libraries that have disappeared is not remarkably high, public libraries have seen their budgets cut, their stocks culled, their staffs reduced and their opening hours shortened.
But libraries are resilient. Intent on surviving in an age where the intellectual act has lost almost all prestige, libraries have become largely social centers. Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online, and it is admirable that librarians have lent themselves to these very necessary services that don’t traditionally belong to their job description. A new definition of the role of librarians could be drafted by diversifying their mandate, but such restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.
Libraries have always been more than a place where readers come to read. The librarians of Alexandria no doubt collected things other than books: maps, art, instruments, and readers probably came there not only to consult books but also to attend public lectures, converse with one another, teach and learn. And yet the library remained principally a place where books, in all their various forms, were stored for consultation and preservation of “ancient traditions or notions ‘gray with time’.” Other institutions fulfilled other complementary tasks necessary in a civilized society: hospitals, philanthropic associations, guilds.
Librarians today are forced to take on a variety of functions that their society is too miserly or contemptuous to fulfill, and the use of their scant resources to meet those essential social obligations diminishes their funds for buying new books and other materials. But a library is not a homeless shelter (at the St. Agnes library in New York, I witnessed a librarian explaining to a customer why she could not sleep on the floor), a nursery or a fun fair (the Seneca East Public Library in Attica, Ohio, offers pajama parties), or a prime provider of social support and medical care (which American librarians today nonetheless routinely give).
All these activities are good and useful, and may grant libraries a central role in society once again, but we must be prepared to invest the system with more, not less funds, to allow it to reinvent itself. Librarians are not trained to act as social workers, caregivers, babysitters or medical advisers. All these extra tasks make it difficult, if not impossible, for librarians to work as librarians: to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves. The new duties imposed on them are the obligations of civilized societies toward their citizens, and should not be dumped pell-mell onto the shoulders of librarians. If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable.
If libraries are to be not only repositories of society’s memory and symbols of its identity but the heart of larger social centers, then these changes must be made consciously from an intellectually strong institution that recognizes its exemplary role, and teaches us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times.
Adapted from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/24/opinion/reinventing-the-library.html?mtrref=topics.nytimes.com&assetType=opinion