In the Stacks

Making a case for libraries

Let's talk about the future. But first, this year: Google started scanning the pages of library books to allow them to be searched from any computer, and both the Authors Guild and the American Association of Publishers sued to stop it. Yahoo stated that it was teaming with Adobe, HP, and two libraries (including UC) on a similar book-scanning project. Random House, according to Business Week, announced that it's going to “offer its books directly to consumers on a page-per-view basis” — but in low-res versions, so you won't be tempted to print them out. The founder of Wiki- pedia mentioned that the company is in talks with publishing houses to develop paper editions of its “open source” online encyclopedia. San Francisco's Brewster Kahle publicized his Open Content Alliance, an effort to scan and print out-of-copyright volumes. There's so much bleed between books, libraries, and the Internet that I have to wonder where it's all headed.

Perhaps the most disturbing mention of this phenomenon I came across appeared in an article in a software magazine, Dr. Dobb's Journal, that my husband gets. The piece — “The Google Revolution” by Jerry Pournelle — had this to say about what that company has done for us all:

“[Google's] search engines have changed scholarship the world over. The Internet always did contain a great deal of information and had the potential to let you do a lot of research without having to go down to libraries, but without Google, it was so hard to find anything that many of us went to the library anyway. Now I rarely visit one of those sepulchers of knowledge.”

Sepulchers of knowledge. That gave me the chills.

Then I got over myself. When was the last time I went to the library? When I lived at 16th Street & Sanchez, a block away from the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Branch, I entered the place once in three years. Now I live about a 10-minute walk from the Bernal Heights Branch, and I've been inside twice in the same amount of time; I've never been to the Mission Branch, though it's not much farther away. I sat in the basement of the Park Branch once for a reading (Jeffrey Eugenides on Middlesex: awesome). I've used the Main Branch for research a few times — and to visit the amazing Book Arts & Special Collections room and various galleries — but I'm not a frequent patron. Now a new library, the Mission Bay Branch, is going up across the street from my office, funded by 2000's Prop. A, a $106 million bond; it's due to open next year. Will I be a regular?

It'd be sacrilege to suggest that “bricks and mortar” libraries aren't necessary anymore. For those who can't afford to buy books, and for parents who don't want to shell out for 10 gazillion Harry Potter volumes, and (ironically) for people who want Internet access without having to get a computer or buy a cup of coffee, they're indispensable. In fact, San Franciscans, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, visit the library about twice as often as people in the rest of the country. But for those of us who don't do so, who buy from bookstores or shop for titles online or download them from onto our iPods, who do research using Google and Lexis and blogs and myriad other computerized methods — what does the library do for us?

Besides lending books, newspapers, magazines, CDs, DVDs, and Internet access from one location, most branches offer rooms for meetings, readings, lectures, and classes. There are anime screenings, book-making and -binding courses, hip hop poetry, and playwriting workshops at a couple of branches, and DJ instruction at the Main. Today's library is less of a place to be alone with books than it is a place to be together, with books — like 826 Valencia, but with better parking (and no pirate shop, alas).

When I was a kid a trip to the library was a big deal. I spent hours poring over the stacks, ostensibly looking for the latest Nancy Drew titles but really seeking the Judy Blume books I wasn't supposed to read (remember Forever?). The main San Jose branch at that time was huge, dark, and musty, and the librarians all seemed to be peering over half-moon glasses with little smiles on their faces, as if they knew my secret and didn't mind. I browsed volumes on subjects I didn't feel comfortable talking to anyone about, discovered writers I wouldn't otherwise have found, and investigated obscure facts I couldn't have gotten from my children's encyclopedia at home.

These days I do a lot of research online, which is simpler than hauling a 6-month-old baby uninterested in books (except as food) to a library. But it's easy to fall into the trap of relying too heavily on the Internet and not enough on the book in hand. Google, for example, is a fine first step — I use it a hundred times a day, I'm sure — but it's just a tool. It's not a source in and of itself. Sometimes you need to see the thing in person to be sure you've got it right, and the library is the most comprehensive place to do so.

In any case, I took it as a compliment when a friend recently told me I look like a “sexy librarian.” Maybe it was my half-moon glasses, or my secret smile.

On a separate note, for anyone who was hoping for a Top 10 list, here's the best I can offer — my Top 2 of 2005:

1) Best Nonfiction: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (hardcover, May). Riveting, funny, and surprising. I can't think of a single adult I know who wouldn't enjoy reading it.

2) Best Fiction: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (paperback, March). The kind of novel you read with a pencil in your hand, so you can underline all the great passages and write exclamation points in the margins. If I were a quoter — like the protagonist, Nick — I'd memorize lines from this one.

Perhaps you could check these books out at the library, and in the New Year resolve to get to know your local branch. I'm hoping the folks at the Bernal Heights outpost will still have me.

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