A Trip to the Library

It used to be that a visit to the library was something to celebrate. One wandered the stacks, picking up fascinating volumes at random, discovering whole fields and respected authors one had never heard of. The knowledge was right there, between the covers of books, many books in a row all on the same subject.

No longer. Public libraries have become deeply depressing places.

Now, I have occasionally visited the Ohio State University library. It hasn’t changed much, and the experience I described can still be had there. In fact, it has grown, and while many of the stacks have moved off campus to a special facility, a massive selection remains for browsing.

But at the once-enormous Columbus Metropolitan Library, regarded as one of the best less than twenty years ago according to the Hennen’s American Public Library Rating, everything has changed.

Not the library I visited, but it was very much along these lines: depressingly bare of books and people reading them.

I had to visit the main library because I needed access to the Foundation Directory (for fundraising for the Knowledge Standards Foundation). Access was available only on the premises. When I arrived, I was greeted, well, strangely: two or three librarians stood next to modern check-out desks, looking (could it have just been my imagination?) hungrily at the visitors, eager to have someone to help. I told them the reason for my visit and they said I would need a library card. It seems my old library card number was no longer recognized in the system, so a new one was issued on the spot. The librarians were helpful and the procedure was quick and easy.

Actually, I had visited the main library a year or two before, after the gutting. So I knew what to expect. Yet when I climbed the stairs to the main stacks, I was still shocked and disturbed. The books! Where are the books? Gone!

No, not entirely gone. Just mostly gone. There used to be rows upon rows of stacks, the typical tall sort, from floor to ceiling; I believe it required a stool to stand on to get books from the top shelf. Now the stacks are half-sized, like the stacks in the children’s section, as if they simply didn’t have enough books to fill the space—which, I suppose, is now true. At the once-glorious Columbus library, where once there had been more books than in many college libraries, now there are opens vistas of empty floor and (even on a late Tuesday afternoon after school) mostly-unused chairs and tables, which are placed far apart, as if Covid is still raging. As a free co-working space, this sort of thing is rather nice, perhaps. But on second thought, not really: social distancing makes for a cold and uninviting space. There is also a third floor, with more books. But again, the stacks are shrunken, a shadow of their former selves.

I looked at subjects I am familiar with, philosophy and theology. The offerings are now pitiful. I remember thinking, in years gone by, that while not nearly as good as Ohio State’s selection, at least the main branch had a very solid and respectable collection of philosophy books. I was rather proud of my local library. This is all changed. Most of the selections are popular—the sorts of things one might find at the local Barnes and Noble. Most of the classics that could be reliably found on the shelves are gone.

The Columbus Metro Library “reading room.” Empty of both people and books.

The library has been deliberately gutted—dumbed down and turned into a co-working space. Not just that. It is now a “community space.” The only real glory of the library is the children’s area, which seems to be clean, safe, and well-stocked. But next to it is a vast atrium, through which after-school teenagers and many bums mill about or camp on the floor. A coffee shop dominates the space, and a very small bookshop. While I was using the restroom, I noticed one bum lying on his side in a stall looking up at me sleepily through the floor-level gap. I greeted him and went about my business: who can blame him for being there? It’s a community space. On the second floor is a teenagers’ area, with games and televisions, because as everybody knows, that’s what a library is all about. When I told the librarian that I was researching nonprofits, she (not having anything better to do) rather proudly ushered me to the “nonprofit area,” a rather more elaborate co-working space. But there is nothing there that I could not get elsewhere in the area: access to the library wifi, which is all I needed to have access to the database.

It won’t do to tell me that people read ebooks now. I know that. I’m not impressed by that argument. First of all, not everybody does. And in any case, you can’t browse ebooks the way you can browse stacks of real paper books. Library ebook holdings are ephemeral: you lose the subscription, you lose the books. Paper books require no subscription. And the sense of being among crowds of brilliant thinkers and writers is gone: modern library authors more nearly resemble marketers and influencers.

And the old library serendipity is gone. Maybe that’s the worse part. The library no longer conveys awe and mystery.

By the way, did you know that, especially with Covid, libraries have been joining teacher unions? I want to criticize neither teachers nor librarians because they are not well-paid and they do serve an essential role in society. But library leadership complains bitterly about conservative demands to remove pornography from school libraries; how ironic. “Censorship!” they cry. Should we not more strongly cry “censorship” when they cull thousands of good old volumes from their collections? And surely we will not go too far amiss if we suspect this action of having political motives: other aspects of education have also been politicized, even radicalized, in recent years.

Libraries can and should be beautiful, because books are beautiful.

Well, I have an idea. Why don’t libraries invest their resources in buying, well, some books? Why not a full collection of all the classics? There aren’t that many, and they are not expensive, or rather, they can be obtained and printed in inexpensive editions. What I ask here is quite reasonable: have all of the classics in paper form. Why don’t libraries stock the top 10,000 public domain classics, for ease of access, lack of dependence on the Internet, serendipity, and in support of a solid liberal arts education? I calculate around 70 college library bookcases. That would not be that much space: perhaps 750 square feet of floor space. But at least that knowledge would be preserved for the lifetime of those books, which can be quite substantial. Their presence would support the more scholarly public—not a small community—who greatly desire ease of access to such books.

Librarians do care about liberal arts education, right? Surely they do.


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10 responses to “A Trip to the Library”

  1. Terry Brewer

    I have been perusing thrift stores, library “sales”, yard sales and online auctions, in an attempt to increase my limited-space, home library. It started out as a “what if” library, as in, what if the power grid goes down, or what if it’s no longer safe to leave your home and go to the library. Now it’s an attempt to prepare for what appears to be one of the darkest moments in the history of our planet.

    Very grateful for the work you do, Mr. Sanger. I just hope civilization is around long enough to enjoy your efforts.

    1. Thanks, Terry. Good luck with your library!

  2. Jonathan Blamey

    A really good idea. I try to get my Philosophy students to read the seminal works. But it hardly occurs to me to suggest a library. Obvious the (talking from the U.K.) university libraries a very good, but over the last 20 years it is increasingly difficult to get access. And those who do have access don’t need it because their online subscription comes with Athens etc. The so called “Information Age” has amounted to the grand scale privatisation of Knowledge. Ancient knowledge that the internet promised to make available to all of us, has resulted in government and private gate keepers making these resources as scarce as other commodities.

    1. I pay $50 or $100 per year for a “friends of the library” subscription to the Ohio State University library, which is very big. Worth it.

  3. Laura

    I must admit that I haven’t seen the inside of my local public library in many years. The policy here is that my library card has to be renewed every year and there’s not much there to make the trip worth it. They used to subscribe to Ancestry.com and a couple of other genealogy websites, but no more.

    I, too, like the feel of a paper book in my hands, as opposed to my husband who loves his Kindle edition library books. I get my books from yard and estate sales and book exchanges at the campgrounds we frequent. And have collected many books for our home library…no electricity or batteries required for reading!

    Love your essays.

  4. Portia

    Thanks for these thoughts. I have always loved libraries and physical books and never thought much about ‘curation’ until recently, when there is so much outrage about ‘being offensive’ in a political sense as regards books that reflect actual thought of actual people living actual lives. Sure, there were attempts to ban “Huckleberry Finn” when I was a child, but it’s much more ridiculous now that people’s fee-fees are so much easier to ruffle and it’s as if ‘removing’ inconvenient thought will make everything OK for them. I am referring to philosophical and creative works, not porn, here. Porn takes one to an altogether different (and temporary) place, and libraries have no reason to stock them–it’s everywhere. I wonder if channeling access to online sources is just more centralization and frankly the need to spy on what we are reading, and provide a black hole for some books to fall into. Now we need “book savers” the way we have “seed savers” to preserve hybrid thought.

  5. Candy

    Hi Mr. Sanger, I used to love taking my kids to the Salt Lake City Library, but no longer. They stock books under the American Library Association directives , which are horrid! Libraries used to promote American citizenship and civil duties and rights. Now it’s pushing neomarxist woke garbage and their is literally hard core pornography on the tax funded children’s bookshelves. They reflect the degeneration of our culture, morality and intellect. I’m working with parents to get them to remove pornography from the children’s section. Frankly, it’s another corrupted institution, following in the footsteps of major academic institutions, Wikipedia (written by the CIA propagandists), science for hire, for profit medical institutions and so on and so forth. Like George Carlin said: they want us dumbed down and complacent.

  6. Nita

    Thank you, Mr. Sanger. I’m very grateful for your insights about the library. From a poor, nomadic family, I discovered the library in grammar school, and it was forevermore my refuge, wherever I was, and that feeling, smell, atmosphere of peace and reverence endures to this day. At least the memory of it. My children were instilled with a love of books early, and my oldest granddaughter, whom I raised, still has her first library card from when she was three years old, and is now a mother herself. So much is so wrong right now, and I no longer donate books, and spend a lot of time finding them, yard sales, thrift stores, online used book stores, and I save them all, as much as I can. I’m afraid the day will come when they won’t be available. Unlike before, I found I can enjoy reading the same books over again. I used to love wikipedia, but no more. I don’t trust much of anything on it, except that’s where I found your name and connection to it, and the fact that James Wales tries to discredit you as a co-founder. Par for the course; he’s still there, and you are gone. I guess that says it all. Thank you for all you do, and I very much enjoy your articles.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Nita! Your book-preserving activities are inspiring!

      You might be interested to learn of a project I am working on now. The software I have almost finished is book-reading software for Project Gutenberg books, all 70,000 of them, all placed in a shareable (ZWI–basically ZIP) format on a 128GB thumb drive. Basically, plug this thing into your computer, run the software, and you’ll be able to search, save, browse, print, etc., all the books in that collection, even without the Internet. So you see I too am interested in saving books.

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