Library of Congress reading-room

Argentine-born Canadian writer Alberto Manguel is a particularly distinguished authority on libraries and reading. A History of Reading and The Library at Night are just two of his many contributions on the field. Now he has penned a short op-ed in the New York Times, entitled “Reinventing the Library,” which makes a good companion piece to more practical exercises like the Library Journal/School Library Journal sixth annual Survey of Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries.

Manguel underlines the threat to libraries, in the UK and elsewhere. “In most of the Anglo-Saxon world (but not significantly in most Latin American countries) the number of libraries has been decreasing. In Britain, close to 350 libraries have been shut down in the past decade,” he writes. And he adds, “In the United States, while the number of libraries that have disappeared is not remarkably high, public libraries have seen their budgets cut, their stocks culled, their staffs reduced and their opening hours shortened.” And he highlights the danger this poses to the “defining triple role” of libraries: “as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.”

The last of these is perhaps the least obvious, but one of the most significant functions of a library. The Library of Congress in the U.S., the British Library in the UK, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, all of them are not only repositories of information and memory, but also embodiments of the societies and cultures that created them, expressions of what those were and sought to be. The Library of Congress is a temple of democracy and an expression of the ambitions of the Founding Fathers. The Bibliothèque nationale was first an expression of Louis XIV’s centralizing authority, and later after the French Revolution, the repository of the archives and national heritage seized from the aristocracy and clergy. The British Library was part of the first effort to create a truly modern national museum. National libraries have been axes and lodestones for the identities of peoples since time immemorial, and their provincial and local offshoots convey that same function across their societies as a whole.

Manguel applauds the social role of libraries, but is wary of their transition into “largely social centers. Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online.” As he warns, “Librarians today are forced to take on a variety of functions that their society is too miserly or contemptuous to fulfill, and the use of their scant resources to meet those essential social obligations diminishes their funds for buying new books and other materials.” And much of this is because: “every economic crisis responds, first of all, by cutting funds to culture.”

Unfortunately, that can mean cutting away more than just stores of books. ” Somewhere in our time, we began to forget what memory — personal and collective — means, and the importance of common symbols that help us understand our society,” cautions Manguel. Helping those societies as dispensing centers for social services, like post offices used to be, may be a valuable role for libraries in future. But is it any wonder if a society which cannot understand and maintain a dialog with itself begins to fray and disintegrate?


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