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School Libraries

What Exactly Is a Library?

Thinking in words, writing in books — if we changed how we perceive, record, and aggregate information, how would our libraries change?

March 30, 2015

Libraries are brilliant because books are brilliant. So how we organize those books is no small matter -- and deserves additional scrutiny as technology changes things. Let's look at this idea first as a matter of symbolism, then function: what books are, and how that suggests we think about them.

Books as Symbols

At their fundamental level, books document knowledge, process, and context. Writers know (or seek to know) a thing. Then they frame their thinking about it by choosing an angle of approach depending on their purpose -- what they're hoping the text says or accomplishes.

That part is fairly mathematical. The context bit is more indirect. We think in ways that reveal the collective statuses, biases, and norms of our circumstance. How we think is a universal condition that is necessarily shared. In that way, books written at the turn of the 20th century about electricity would speak about electricity differently because electricity was alien, frightening, and new. Put another way, electricity was different than it is now because "electricity" is just a word describing a fluid condition. The world changes. Meaning changes. Forms change. Words are made of the softest kind of clay, and change as they're handled and used.

There is also the matter of writing. A topic can be as simple or complex as a writer intends to see it. For example, consider the possible approaches to writing a book about electricity:

Forms of electricity. Electricity as a concept. Electricity as a tool. Electricity as a catalyst for social change. The ecological impact of electricity. Alternatives to electricity. Electricity as a matter of equity. Electricity as technology. Electricity as similar to and distinct from bioluminescence. The rising costs of electricity. How electricity has enabled a digital world.

A book about bicycles might itemize itself as a matter of function, analysis, or consumerism:

The Incredible History of the Humble Bicycle. Sell Your Car and Buy A Bike. The Advancements in Bicycle Technology. Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance.

You can make sense of bicycle as a symbol in any number of ways because it's a symbol.

Prevailing Local Technology

Through prior millennia of humanity assembling cultures that created ideas worth sharing, drawings and oral storytelling were two dominant forms of expression. And while the Story of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest written stories (around 2700-2500 BCE), it took thousands of years for Johannes Gutenberg to make books easier to print with his advancements in moveable type. This ushered in the era of the book that has lasted for over 500 years, a period of time when the book itself has taken many forms and birthed new genres.

This form became such a part of our native schema that we tend to think in terms of books just as we have learned to think in terms of words. Consider how crazy that is! Words are collections of minor symbols (letters) that, in the right sequence, form another symbol (a word) that, as a matter of both function and syntax, cooperate with other symbols (more words) to form sentences which we hope convey meaning. And that's not how we communicate, but how we think.

And for the last several centuries, when communicating suitably complex ideas, we frame them as books. That medium provides a template for thinking. Books are our highest form of expression.

So if we say, "Books are documentations of knowledge, process, and context," what does that mean in an increasingly mobile and digital world? Books can be digital, but only because they've been shoehorned there. Books have thrived for so long because they're relatively cheap to produce, durable, cost nothing to maintain, and those who read them show affection for them as tools and icons.

But compared to what we increasingly wish to do with what we read, books are incredibly limited. Their form is a matter of prevailing local technology, and they are being usurped in terms of our cultural predilections. Why? Take a modern library, for example. Even in the newest libraries, books are arranged in terms of genre, often by the author's last name. This is similar to a department store.


Imagine the internet being catalogued that way. Or YouTube. Libraries are far more rational and exact in their arrangement -- it's all extraordinarily left-brained and painfully precise. The Dewey Decimal System is both cold and efficient in its structure.

If a library were YouTube, it would have other suggested books. If it were Twitter, it would be a digital stream. If it were Google, it would be searchable. If it were Facebook, you could see how others searched, what they found, and what they thought about it. If it were Reddit, sharing the most interesting nuggets would be as much a part of reading as the decoding and the comprehension. This doesn't mean that a library should be anything like YouTube, Google, Facebook, or Reddit. There's no reason that a book has to change at all -- it could be that they're like sharks, so perfect in their design that evolution doesn't touch them. But seeing books as a matter of media form -- and thus a template for thought -- does give us several points of contrast.

How we think of media is changing as much as the forms of media are changing -- because the forms of media are changing.

Language Is Crazy Because We Are

The beautiful thing about language is the absurdity of its mechanics. Everything is a metaphor.

From the outside looking in, things are symbols -- objects with referents. And we don't even have to get into semantics and linguistics. Imagine taking a walk and looking up to notice a tree that's blooming for spring. When you do so, you can think of that tree, or you can think of a more vague tree-ness. That is, you think more of the referent than the object, or more about its classification than its true self.

You may also do both. First you have your attention caught by that tree, and then you think of the more general trees -- other trees it reminds you of, the outward strength of trees, the shade trees provide, how long it must take trees to grow, and so on.

But for the vast majority of things that you encounter daily, it’s simple and brief. You see a thing without seeing it at all. On that same walk down the street, you'll pass thousands of objects that all retreat into an opaque whole. People walking, cars driving, birds flying, doors shutting, and children playing -- all visible as objects, but invisible as symbols.

Most libraries today -- and the books within them -- are kind of the same way.

What do books and libraries mean to you?

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