Alberto Manguel loves libraries. The author of numerous books, such as A History of Reading and The Library at Night, Manguel has long been the librarian's advocate.
This is why it is painful to observe that his most recent defense of the value of libraries misses the mark. That defense appears in a recent Times op-ed, "Reinventing the Library."
In the piece Manguel decries the unconscionable extent to which public libraries have now assumed roles that should be performed by a more compassionate government. "Librarians today are forced to take on a variety of functions that their society is too miserly or contemptuous to fulfill...a library is not a homeless shelter." Here Manguel is speaking about public libraries rather than academic libraries, a distinction I will return to later.
I agree with Manguel that our social policies have become cramped and mean-spirited. But in attempting to reassert the proper role for the library, he over-corrects. Nostalgia draws Manguel backwards, when a thinker of his stature should be looking forward.
To wit: "If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable."
I love books, and I also love browsing libraries with shelves stacked to high ceilings. But, in the end, a book is a vessel for knowledge. The book itself, in its materiality and physiciality, serves a vital purpose but is not the point. The point is knowledge generation and transfer -- this can occur via books or via computer code that can never be "published" in the traditional sense.
Come now, Marcus, you may be thinking. This fungible notion of knowledge artifacts might make sense in those ivory tower academic libraries. But in the public libraries people still love their books.
Yes, and no. Of course the public library will continue to purchase and loan books, even if not at the rate Manguel would prefer. But public libraries are also hosting MakerSpaces and buying 3D printers. These are both knowledge creation tools and spaces -- albeit not between two covers. The public library was never about the centrality of the book, but about centrality of knowledge.
The librarian's role, both public and academic, is loftier and more revolutionary than Manguel realizes. We are here to nurture knowledge, not to manage books.