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Matthew Guterl on The Future of the Library/Libraries

A fellow faculty participant in the November 2, 2011 “Faculty Discussion on the Future of University Libraries” held at Indiana University under the sponsorship of the Dean of Libraries and the Provost was my Department of American Studies colleague Matthew Guterl. Matt is Rudy Professor of American Studies and History and the Chair of the the Department of American Studies. A historian of race and race-relations in the Americas, he is the author of numerous key works in American Studies, including The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940 (Harvard University Press, 2001) and American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation (Harvard University Press, 2008). This site does not have a flashy title like The Edge of the American West, Crooked Timber, or Savage Minds but it is fun to welcome such a talented guest contributor to the blog part of my website. Rather than see them filed away unread, here are Matt’s thoughtful reflections on the future of libraries at IU and everywhere.

“The Future of the Library/Libraries”

Matthew Pratt Guterl

I haven’t been to the big limestone box on Jordan in over a year, but I use the library every day.

Once I needed to use the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature; now I use Google.  I used to check the stacks; now I just search by keyword on Project Muse, or wait for a Google Scholar alert to arrive in my inbox.  I used to store my handwritten notes and copies in fireproof boxes or plastic crates; now I have digital reproductions of the entire archive of my current project stored on my phone.

The last time I was there, in the Wells Library, it was for coffee and donuts.

Maybe the future of the library is not the same thing as the future of that building.

Wells Library, Bloomington, Indiana. Courtesy of Indiana University.

After all, even if I’ve been absent physically, I’ve clicked on the IU Libraries link more times than I can count, and trolled through its rich databases with great delight.  I have more need of the library-in-the-abstract than ever before.

The big limestone box – and all that it includes – is still important.  But ours is not the Fitchburg State library, and IU isn’t a second tier, branch campus.  When I wonder about the short-term future of “real” academic libraries with walls and windows and floors, my thoughts race to Rutgers-Newark, to IU-East, or Washington State-Tri-Cities, or Lincoln University, the places most likely to be first erased by budget cutting and spatial reallocation.  I think about small town libraries in places less well off than Bloomington.  I think about corporate libraries and law firm libraries and museum libraries.  I think about the impending extinction of the bookshelf at the old ski lodge, or the hotel lobby, where the accidental discovery of some old Faulkner text, or some Philip K. Dick collection, encourages a new thought. Our research library – the Wells Library – may be safe, for now.  These other, less secure sites, are not.

I worry, after thinking about all of this, about the right now, and about short term access for the less fortunate, confronted with the boxing up of the local library stacks, however meager, or the end of the hard copy, however scarce, and about the corresponding absence of laptops and ipads and wifi, which we imagine as open substitutes, available to anyone, in this age of receding material reality.

Yes, the Wells Library will survive for some time, much like the 42nd Street Branch of the New York Public Library, or the Library Company in Philadelphia.  The scale of the architecture ensures that, as does the vastness of the collections and the professionalism of the research faculty.  Such places, awe-inspiring and beautiful, still generate new knowledge, even while they also encourage new and necessarily generous donations, and serve as delightful backdrops for critical fundraising campaigns.  But eventually, perhaps inevitably, as the library becomes ever more disembodied, even these historic buildings may become repurposed reliquaries, like old Masonic temples turned into state office buildings, or old movie theatres turned into restaurants, or old plantations turned into museums and beds and breakfasts.  Or, like abandoned factories, they will simply be emptied of content and left to fall apart, or turned into loft apartments.

Of course, for those of us caught up in the past, it is easy to get nostalgic about what is lost in this transition.  I remember the smell of my first public library, nestled in a retrofitted old fire station next to my childhood home.  I remember reading Santayana on the steps of the New York Public Library, waiting for the doors to open, and excited about what might be revealed within.  I remember the pleasure of waiting for something to arrive, for my call number to light up, or of finding something unexpected, and of the pervasive smell of glue and paper and ink.   I remember discovering a letter, misfiled under the wrong name, proving what I thought to be a powerful point.   In my most troubled moments, I grow concerned that all of this – this set of possibilities, this travail – will be lost.

Nostalgia, though, is the conservative reflex of those confronted by rapid change.  And so I push back against it.  I imagine what is possible in our future.  And I think, instead, of how cool it will be when the poorest person in the world can press a button – even if the button is worn, and the screen is dingy – and call up the complete works of Toni Morrison, linked to every video interview she’s ever given, and joined with her correspondence, archived in public and for free.  As a public university now more indebted than ever to a bigger, more global “public,” we have a big role in making this future possible.

I’m not sure that this utopic vision includes the bricks-and-mortar of the Wells Library, though it surely includes research librarians.  In many ways, it is the antithesis of this place, which has more in common with the Royal Library at Alexandria than it does with Google books.  And I remember that when the College’s Strategic Planning Committee met a few years ago, we half-joked about creating a rooftop biergarten, with crystal slides to the ground floor.  But this vision most certainly includes the library as a liberal ideal, with a social function worth expanding, a political mission worth protecting, and a research agenda that deserves better articulation.

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