Yesterday I spoke on the phone with a recently retired librarian. I told her that I would soon be embarking on a research project. She spoke of the resources of local libraries. But in doing so she also told me that the large libraries, both public and private, had reduced their supplies of books.
This is what I had been suspected. I had noticed over the last half-year that the shelves of my local public library were becoming quite empty. Books that I had gone to for information were no longer there.
I had hoped that the library had moved its stock to other buildings. But this librarian informed me that many of the books had been sold in order for the library would have more money for computers.
I have grown accustomed, over the past few years, to no longer finding the books I needed in bookstores. Rummaging through a bookstore has been, since the invention of printing, a pleasant way to spend an hour. This has stopped. I now find most of my books online.
I can understand, as painful as the situation may be, why bookstores have cut their displays. They are, after all, businesses, and they have struggled recently to stay afloat. But I hold public libraries to a higher standard. They are the guardians of the knowledge we have acquired over hundreds, even thousands of years.
The library of Alexandria contained much of the wisdom of the ancient world. Here scholars studied the poets, philosophers and historians of Greece and Rome.
When the library was burnt, most books from classical times were lost. The lesson is plain. I am for computers. I use computers. These words are sent by internet.
But after the fall of Rome, it took close to another thousand years for science, art, literature and technology to regain the level of achievement that had prevailed in classical times.
We should not rely on one source for our information and communication. Libraries should not be getting rid of printed books or other books.
The philosopher Hegel said that the only thing we learn from history is that governments learn nothing from history. There are unfortunate examples in recent times validating that philosopher’s opinion. The dismantling of stock trading, banking and environmental regulations led, in turn, to the crash of 1987, the economic meltdown of 2007 and the BP oil disaster.
But if civilization is to avoid a winter even longer than the one predating the Renaissance, the stewards of our public libraries would do well to make themselves exceptions to Hegel’s rule.