On the Public Library

I love my local public library. I have full access to all the content here. None of this “Limited Preview” stuff or accessible-for-members-only notices.

More than any other institution in my city the public library is the most effective melting pot of economic and social categories. The highly educated, the people who will eat supper at a soup kitchen, the recent immigrant — and everyone else, all of us — are here. And everyone seems to feel at home.

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”1 (Andrew Carnegie)


  1. Andrew Carnegie, as cited by Thomas R. Hensley, The Boundaries of Freedom and Order in American Democracy (Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001) p. 186 

14 thoughts on “On the Public Library

    • Hey Brendan,
      It has been interesting to watch my library adjust to the Internet – it now provides free Internet and computer access to many people who can’t afford it.
      But as for the internet providing free information, I think it still ought to be recognized that the selling of information (thinking Amazon, online content, etc) implies that no, the Internet does not provide all free information. There is still data held behind an economic barrier. Archaic as a physical library seems, it does not have this barrier in place.

  1. Ahh, just re-read your post (late night skim reading). I missed the

    Although the internet cannot replace the depth of real life interaction (yet), it has really really become the cultural and intellectual melting pot of the twenty-first century.

    The dilemma is, what to do about those who have impaired internet access due to financial problems or lack of computer skills. Then the public library has a role to play in providing free internet access and technical.

    I’m not saying this should be their only role, as that wouldn’t be recognising the valuable experience of the librarians and staff, but it’s food for thought I guess.

    I would be interested to know what thoughts you have on the interface between the real and the digital world in the context of libraries. The ambience of the analogue world is refreshing and inspiring, but at the same time you cannot ignore the sheer power of the global mind.

    • We’re talking about the Internet and the library like they are two different things, but ultimately are both not mere vehicles for the storage and transfer of knowledge? Knowledge, synthesized data and perspective, this is the linchpin of the discussion. Both the library (physical space) and the Internet (digital space) have vital roles here, for even the digital cloud is still a place and accessing it must happen from somewhere.

      But internet access aside, I’d still argue that I have access to more information while at the library than I do from a google search at home: just as amazon might instantly recommend a particular title in response to a search query, the Internet still presents barriers to reading exactly the content of the third paragraph on the ninety-second page of a particular book.

      Yes, I have no doubt that more and more will be digitized and available online, just as books have always been available for sale since the printing press. The issue here is one of access across social and economic divides. The Internet, all by itself, does not actually address this, since it is human will and power that always decides who will access what.

      • Yes. There is also the fact that face-to-face discussion is also a rich form of information and knowledge transfer that the internet cannot yet emulate:

        “It never ceases to surprise me how different — how much more efficient — face-to-face communication is. You learn things, hear things, say things, and notice things in person that would have gone unlearned, unheard, unsaid, unnoticed otherwise.” — John Gruber (via Ben Brooks).

  2. As a public librarian, I appreciate your post very much, James. And the internet has not replaced the library or librarians, contrary to what some people like to say. We help people navigate the sea information, keep up to date on new technologies, and a number of other things. A subject I’m very passionate about, obviously, so I’ll leave it at that!

    • “We help people navigate the sea information, keep up to date on new technologies, and a number of other things.”

      That’s a great definition of a librarian. My mother is a librarian at a school, and she is grappling with what her place is in the digital age. It is a common occurrence in schools now that students go straight to the computers and the internet, and the books are left forgotten. That’s less of a problem at my university library, but even then, most of the journal articles are now online.

      My speculation is that the internet has forced librarians to redefine their profession in more general terms. At the end of the day, books, videos, newspapers, magazines, encyclopaedias, wikipedia, blogs… they’re all just data and information. It’s how you piece it together and create new knowledge and insights that is the most important thing.

  3. Hey James, nice post & discussion. I’d like to suggest that both computers, and books, hold nothing more than data. Bits (or ink droplets) are used to symbolize letters of the alphabet, which in a given language symbolize particular sounds, and when strung together form words to which we have attached symbolic meanings, and so on. I think books / writings / web pages / etc do not contain wisdom, knowledge, or even information. It is all merely data. It becomes “information”, or “knowledge”, or “wisdom” (which themselves are only symbolic words!) when an individual takes them in, and begins connecting those bits, letters, words, concepts, with other things that individual already knows. And so while you and I might seem to have “shared knowledge” of something (say, how to drive a car in Canada), in fact our knowledge bases are entirely unique. We can get into trouble when we make assumptions that someone else holds the same knowledge that we do — because while it might be similar or identical (and for practical purposes this is usually fine — as in we both “know” to drive on the right-hand side), I believe every human being’s knowledge base is literally a unique instantiation.

  4. I don’t blame you for going to the library – it’s been a mystery to me how anyone could work at a Starbucks at all. It’s almost as if these people want to be seen there.

  5. Nice post James, I very much agree with you (in other conversations) that the library serves as the largest drop-in centre for people experiencing homelessness in our city. And, unlike other centres, it brings together people across socio-economic statuses…possibly the most level playing-field around our city.

    I love our libraries, and enjoy how the new context of my work (ie. lots of downtown meetings) allows me to drop by the Central one fairly regularly.

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