Obituary: Public Libraries (300BC – 2016)

Public libraries in North America have passed away in 2016 after succumbing to a brief, but violent, illness. They were two thousand three hundred years old.

For most of their lives, libraries were a hub of scholarship and literature. They held clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment scrolls, silk, handwritten manuscripts, and bounded books encompassing all genres and subject matter. Among their many other achievements, public libraries dedicated their lives to providing otherwise inaccessible literature to the common person, thereby inspiring generations of readers and writers. Among their fans were many esteemed authors, T.S. Eliot believed them to be, “The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”

The first functional library, the Royal Library of Alexandria, was born in the 4rd century BCE, evolving from archives of written work that have existed since the invention of the written word. It was a massive centre for academia dedicated to the nine Muses, and had an estimated 40000 to 400000 papyrus scrolls in its possession when it was destroyed by a fire at an unknown date.

From then on, public libraries’ first two thousand years were rather tumultuous, as they proliferated under the Byzantine and Roman Empires but continued to be taken over and plundered by warring monarchs.

During the Han Dynasty, Chinese scholar Liu Xin created the first book notation and library classification systems, which were written on silk. Soon afterwards, the Chinese craft of paper-making spread to Muslims, who then further refined the catalouges. Libraries became truly public, accessible to the masses through partnerships with mosques, but most were destroyed in the Mongol invasion. As manuscripts were still copied by hand and were too expensive to lose, libraries adapted during the European Middle Ages by chaining books to shelves to prevent them from actually being taken out. Libraries regained importance during the Renaissance through general intellectual pursuits and partnerships with museums. Their unmatched way of taking a person through time, whether through old books or architecture, will be sorely missed.

The golden age of the public library was during the Enlightenment, wherein many distinguished European national libraries were founded. Although libraries at this time only offered lending services, in the 19th century they adapted a subscription based model, and changed their focus to non-fiction subjects, such as history and philosophy. This version of the library forced members to pay an annual fee every year, and unfortunately, was often guilty of segregating people by class; however, it quickly corrected its course.

The first free public library movement began in 1850 in England, stemming from capitalism, the nine-to-five lifestyle created by the industrial revolution, and the upper class fear that the working class was not spending their newly found free time fruitfully. Many thought that the working class should be spending more time on moral activities, such as reading, in the interest of the greater good. The Education Act of 1870, which established public education for all children between the ages 5-12 in Britain, was vital in improving literacy and promoting the use of libraries. In fact, almost 100 years later, it was Walter Cronkite, the iconic anchorman of CBS, who best captured the spirit of this ideal, “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

Across the ocean, 1876 was a landmark year for American libraries. It included  both the founding of the American Library Association and the publication of the Dewey decimal system. After the American Civil War, women’s clubs led the expansion of public libraries. They flourished for several decades until the 1960s, when television first became commercially available to the public.

Television began to compete with reading for citizens’ free time, and, despite technology’s rapid advancement, no serious effort to save public libraries was ever made. Instead, attempts to integrate public libraries into the new digital era made them obsolete. Libraries retained their relevance for a brief time by offering universal Internet access, however, the cost of internet dropped and schools and cafes began offering it as well. As atoms were converted into bits, prices of movies, music, and e-books dropped until people could afford to buy (or pirate) them rather than checking them out of the library.

The proliferation of the Internet also made it possible to work from home, which radically altered the way in which leisure time was spent and further rendered the public library obsolete. Instead of reading, time at home was spent answering emails or finishing a report. Moreover, we became dependent on the internet and machines for entertainment; in a world now brimming with technological distractions – movies, video games, television shows, online shopping, and social media – the tradition of reading a book is teetering precariously atop a steep cliff.

Sadly, since the beginning of the 2010s, municipal governments across Canada have consistently cut funding to their public libraries every year, reducing their hours or closing them down. Entire provinces have scrapped elementary and secondary in-school library programs. In 2011, the Vancouver Public Library almost lost its special collections department after a $1.4-million budget cut.

Public libraries had been extremely active members of their communities, not only by providing information but also by providing sanctuary through good books. As the writer Anne Herbert once said, “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.”

Now, public libraries are a ghost of their once glorious past, inhabited only by stressed university students plugged into a cloud and old-fashioned folks who still get the paper delivered to their door every day because they enjoy turning pages. Books have been increasingly replaced by electronic gadgets of all sorts as well as communal studying spaces. In 2015, McGill University’s collection of e-books surpassed its collection of physical books. While libraries remain students’ natural habitats, people curled up in a chair just to get lost in a book are few and far between. Finding a person who has time to read is rare enough, and soon, it will become unjustifiable to keep rooms full of books that no one ever touches. It is only a matter of time before they are deemed completely irrelevant and unnecessary.

Public libraries are survived by chain bookstores, university libraries, and personal bookshelves. They were loved and will be sorely missed. In lieu of flowers, their children have requested that donations (in monetary or book form) be sent to your local library foundation.

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