Monday, May 16, 2011

Goodbye to Fat City!

I have such warm memories of the Stockton California Public Library. The dingy old building had a separate, gleaming remodeled room for kid's books. In the main library, there was a dim. secluded mezzanine alcove with a whole shelf of scientific books about spiders. Nerd heaven! Sprinkled here and there were old men in trench coats muttering to themselves about how "the CIA did this to me." The building was on Market St., said to be "the longest Skid Row in America." This street was the setting and location of the book and film, Fat City. One of these pathetic souls once waylaid me and warned me that if I did not do my homework I would end up like him. I told him that I did do my homework but thank you sir for your advice.

Well, if the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library is indeed the library of the future, I guess we can say goodbye to all that. No more browsing, and no more muttering freaks. Everything will be done for you by robots and computers in surroundings of wholesome antiseptic sterility!

This rather creepy dystopian setup seems to combine ideas from several different university libraries that I have used over the last 4.5 decades. The Milton Eisenhower Library at The Johns Hopkins University is seven stories -- except that they are negative stories, all but one being below ground. At U. C. Berkeley back in the sixties, undergraduates were already not allowed in the stacks. You requested a book and employees (fellow undergraduates on starvation wages) brought it to you. What's new about this setup is replacing shelves with these "bins," an innovation made possible by the advent of computers and bar codes.

This is one solution to a real problem: the sheer number of books, which, like the size of the national debt, only seems to go in one direction. Unlike the other evils men do, books to not disappear when they have been inflicted on us. They accumulate. Mέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν, a big book is a great evil, as Kallimachos said. And so are many books. What to do with them all? Here, I suppose, is one answer.

(Hat-tip to Ray Sawhill for the link.)
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