Roger L. Simon

Library Nostalgia

Reading several of the comments below on my visit to the new Seattle Library, I am rethinking my opinion of the building. Although I still love the colors, I am not sure I would want to do much research there and I doubt I would want to work there. Not that I have spent a lot of time in libraries lately. Like many people, I do most of my research online. This is the trend even in schools. A friend recently told me that his daughter’s teacher in a fancy NY private school instructed the students speicifically not to go to the library for their term papers, but to build their more useful Internet search skills. (The friend is a publisher and was distressed by this advice.)

The announcement by Google that they are making the contents of Stanford, Harvard, Michigan and Oxford libraries available on line along with parts of the gargantuan New York Public can only increase this trend. Soon libraries may function like book museums.

In its editoriala couple of days agoe the Seattle Times, of all places, sees more hope for libraries.

Picture information seekers Googling key words and finding what they want in a copyrighted text. They can read the excerpt that matches their search but, to get the whole book, they’ll have to buy it or … go to the library. If the books are not protected by copyright, they can see the whole text, but modern copyrights last at least 75 years.

Anyone who has used Google knows finding exactly what you need is growing harder because of increasing “noise” from a profusion of information now available online. Wildly disparate and irrelevant matches to two or three key words obscure the bull’s-eye.

That’s when you can call on … your friendly librarian.

I’m not so sure. There may be a lot of traffic on the Internet but it’s nothing compared to the traffic on our freeways. I’ll take my chances on a few extra search words if necessary. Better time management.

Still, I have great nostalgia for libraries. The 96th Street Public in NY–written about so eloquently by James Baldwin–was my library as a kid. When I was a Dartmouth student, I stared endlessly at the Orozco murals in Baker Library that Catherine Johnson describes below. I may not agree with their politics anymore, but when it comes to color, well, Orozco has Rem Koolhaas beat. And, of course, at Yale I slept better in the Sterling Library’s Linonia & Brothers Reading Room than I have anywhere since.