The Library is dead, long live our library

Photo of W. Somerset Maugham with quote: "Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it."

Credit: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Oh what a difference an article makes

Today’s topic is the proposition that the library is dead, or as good as dead.

Today’s text is from S. R. Ranganathan, The Five Laws of Library Science (1931), p. 382:


Now for what the late Dr. Stewart would refer to as “a nibble at close reading.” Your assignment: Point out how today’s text is typically misquoted.

I’ve misquoted it myself repeatedly, spreading defective Five Laws posters all over Iowa library-land. It took me 37 years to notice.

What Ranganathan says: “A library is a growing organism.” What we hear: “The library is a growing organism.”

Here’s why I think this is a distinction worth talking about.

The English article “a” is indefinite, used to show uniform membership in a group: “I am a retired librarian.” The article “the,” on the other hand, is definite, calling out a particular member of a group: “I am the retired librarian.”

If an appropriate group is specified, the definite article is unexceptional: “Among the volunteers at the Botanical Center, I am the retired librarian.” But if a group is not specified, the definite article may betray a nibble of hubris. Floating free, “I am the retired librarian” carries an overtone that among all librarian retirees, “I am The Retired Librarian” (not to be confused with The Annoyed Librarian).

We are grammatically motivated to place “THE LIBRARY,” without further qualification, in a familiar but vague class of semi-eternal cultural institutions. THE LIBRARY hovers with THE CHURCH, THE MILITARY, THE ARTS, THE ACADEMY, THE MEDIA, THE BOOK, THE GUVMINT and other baggy mental constructions in the sociological middle distance, objects of dismay or veneration, righteous concern, and fluffy New York Times op-eds.

On the other hand, “A LIBRARY” asserts a more down-to-earth class of stubbornly real objects, entities that we can physically walk into and examine up close, testing whether they are in fact dead, or as good as dead, or not dead yet.

Ranganathan is nothing if not down to earth

One of the delights of reading Ranganathan is his eternal return to the practical. The Five Laws is the Moby Dick of professional library classics, veering into eddies of minutia at the slightest excuse. For example: the sole appendix is a 3-page SPECIFICATION FOR A TEAKWOOD BOOK-RACK, which Ranganathan takes care to mention will weigh one ton if fully loaded.

Given his fondness for the concrete, I’m comfortable that Ranganthan’s use of “A” rather than “THE” in his statement of the fifth law, if not necessarily conscious, does reflect his characteristic engagement with the fortunes of real libraries. That being said, I don’t want to make too much of his wordsmithing. In the same paragraph he refers to “the fact that the library, as an institution, has all the attributes of a growing organism” (italics mine), and as the chapter progresses he uses both the definite and the indefinite article in referring to libraries.

Still, all but one called-out restatement of the fifth law uses the phrase “A LIBRARY” (capitalization Ranganathan’s) – and in that exception, he doesn’t capitalize the “the” (p. 407). Throughout the chapter Ranganathan gives us first-hand stories and hard data about the growth of libraries, followed by applied analysis of the implications for “books, readers, and staff.” He does not indulge in Platonic speculations about the growth of The Library until his concluding remarks. There he takes an abstract turn, affirming that in the future, the “vital principle of the library” will survive the evolutionary diversification of libraries into distinct “species.” Always heading toward the specific, as one would expect from a pioneer of faceted classification.

Talkin ’bout our library

The bad news: only librarians, op-ed writers, and occasional library fan-persons care much about the fate of The Library. (Whatever The Library might be—its amorphous ontological status is a compelling reason not to care.)

The good news: pretty much every one of us cares, many of us earnestly, about the fate of Our Library.

Over the decades I’ve spoken at length with hundreds of readers from all sizes and sorts of libraries. Early on I noticed what I thought was an endearing but throwaway whimsy in the relationship between readers and their libraries. No matter what my own, exquisitely professional sense of a library’s quality, the mere readers I talked to typically judged their home library as distinctly above average. Libraries are without question in the same revered class as the children of Lake Wobegon; even the most miserable, begrimed, and wayward specimen is a beloved beneficiary of familial and community pride.

As my respect for puzzling evidence and mere readers has matured, I no longer bracket this recurring anomaly as a throwaway. I have attained rock solid faith in the proposition that, as Tip O’Neill no doubt quipped in his standard library christening remarks, “All libraries are local.” THE LIBRARY may be under siege, but OUR LIBRARY remains at the heart of our community. Yes, libraries are under-funded, under-built and under-staffed, but they are not on the verge of mass extinction from under-love.

I understand that you may be reluctant to accept my heartfelt, but entirely anecdotal evidence of community support for the survival of libraries. Aren’t libraries closing all around us? The always-plainspoken Walt Crawford has looked at the numbers, and found that the death spiral of US libraries is decidedly over-hyped. Crawford’s article is essential reading not only for the reassuring numbers, but also for his method: a meticulous review and evaluation of the evidence. Here’s what he calls “the tip of the pyramid”:

As far as I can tell, at most seventeen public libraries within the United States closed in 2008 or 2009 and have apparently not reopened as of March 2012. That’s 17 out of 9,299 (in 2009) or 9,284 (in 2008) or 0.2%.

With the exception of one bookmobile (operating as a reporting library, not a mobile branch of another library) potentially serving 15,656 people, the closed libraries were very small. Fourteen of them served fewer than 1,000 people (that’s the Legal Service Area, the potential number of patrons); the other two served 1,000 to 2,499 people. Of the fourteen, for that matter, nine served fewer than 350 people—and five served 200 or fewer. The closed libraries accounted for 0.002% of 2007 library circulation—less than one of every 49,000 circulations. In other words, nearly all of the libraries closing in 2008 and 2009 (and all of the brick-and-mortar libraries) were very small libraries serving very few people. (Note the difference: 0.2% of libraries—with 0.002% of circulation, two orders of magnitude smaller.)

Other insights from Crawford:

  • It’s important to distinguish between library agencies (stand-alone libraries/systems) and library branches (outlets within systems). “Why? Because branches come and go as part of how cities change.”
  • There was a net gain of roughly 200 library agencies between 1999 and 2009 (emphasis mine).
  • “…given the depth of loss of public funds during the recession, one really needs to ask whether public libraries are faring worse than other public agencies, not just whether they’re suffering.”
  • A study of public library closings from 1998-2008 by Will Kurt, linked by Crawford, indicates that the annual rate of closings actually declined over that period.

Perhaps most valuable is Crawford’s explanation of why investigating the real situation is important:

My question still stands: How many public libraries (not branches) have actually closed for extended periods, let’s say two years or more? How many of these are in towns and cities that have not become ghost towns?

Yes, there are budgetary problems. (When aren’t there?) Yes, public libraries need more funding.

But to me the primary effect of the “public libraries are closing all over the place!” meme is self-fulfilling prophecy and grist for the mill of libertarians and those who dislike public libraries: Oh well, they’re already shutting down like crazy, that’s just the way it is.

Which, as I suspected, is simply not true.

The Library Armageddon

In my high school days, one of our English teachers was fond of an assignment in which his students sent letters to famous authors asking their opinions on the value of writing well for success in adult life. A surprising number of authors wrote back. The response that has stuck in my mind these fifty years was from Somerset Maugham.

He would have been in his late 80s, about the same age as the decaying red brick edifice that was our high school. I can still picture the shaky, hand-written note, framed and hung on the English room wall. “I am so exceedingly old that this question is of no interest to me, if indeed it ever was. W. Somerset Maugham”

Although I have a few years to go before I am as exceedingly old as W. Somerset Maugham, I find myself increasingly sympathetic to his response. I encounter warning after warning of the impending doom of public libraries, and I can no longer gather the sincerity to take them seriously. If I ever did.

The miasma of library doom can be tracked to three primary sources: libertarians; singularitarians; and proselytizing librarians. All of these earnest folk betray a common condition: they are disposed to what Michael Sacasas terms the Borg Complex.

In the event that you are not a Star Trek devotee, the Borg are an alien collective who roam the universe assimilating innocent species into their cybernetic hive mind. They do not negotiate. They arrive, proclaim their axiomatic war cry – “Resistance is futile” – and get on with the assimilation.

As described by Sacasas, the Borg Complex is epitomized by that axiom: “Resistance is futile.” Futile not so much because the Borg have overwhelming power, but because in their view they exist at the end of history, in that state of perfection toward which the universe strives. The practical manifestation of the Borg Complex is rhetorical: “Resistance is futile,” end of conversation. But to the Borg themselves, their ultimate ascendance is the self-evident truth of their existing at all.

Let’s take a look at how the Borg Complex informs threats of a Library Armageddon.

Libertarians. Public libraries are anathema to libertarians because libraries can be construed to represent creeping socialism, the heresy that sharing resources might be a legitimate practice in any but the most dire circumstances, such as the arrival of the Borg in U.S. airspace.

To suggest that libertarians are afflicted with the Borg Complex may seem a bit cheeky: the Borg are the ultimate collective and libertarians are resolutely committed to the triumph of the individual. But the Borg Complex is about self-evident totalizing as a rhetorical move, not socio-economic theory. Ayn Rand is arguably the most dedicated real-life exemplar of the Borg Complex on record, condemning billions of merely sociable human beings to a meaningless hive existence so that the self-created John Galts of her perfect future may triumph. Resistance is futile to the self-evident virtue of selfishness.

Singularitarians. The singularity is a futurist conceit in which machine intelligence reaches a tipping point that transforms human life into what Monty Python would term “something completely different.” Here’s a quote from SingularityHUB, a service of Singularity University:

The singularity is the point in mankind’s future when we will transcend current intellectual and biological limitations and initiate an intelligence and information explosion beyond imagining.

The most renowned prophet of the singularity is inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, well-known in library circles for designing the Kurzweil Reading Machine. In his book The Singularity Is Near, he predicts that “near” is in fact 2045 (more wise than Harold Camping, he doesn’t specify month and day).

Though by definition the state of the universe after the singularity can’t be predicted, Kurzweil is convinced that one outcome will be humankind’s triumph over death. A post-singularity human will be able to upload his or her individual consciousness into a machine and live on forever, free at last from meatspace. (Rather a Borg-like fate, to my way of feeling.)

Although the number of confessing singularitarians is not large, there are many folks who assume that the functional body of the public library has been, or soon will be, uploaded into the machine, and confidently encourage the death of the meatspace library. We may be taken aback at the ignorance of a local politician who votes to cut public library funding because “everything is on the Internet for free,” but he or she is simply picking up on one of the more enticing (and theoretically money-saving) promises of the singularitarian creed. Kurzweil cites the inexorable progression of Moore’s Law as technological proof that his predictions will soon come to pass: resistance is futile to the inevitable eruption of the singularity.

Proselytizing librarians. From the time I started public library work in the late ’70s, there have been small but influential cadres of early adopters warning of the impending obsolescence and probable death of traditional libraries, and preaching a new path forward through the faithful practice of assorted innovations. (Generally, one innovation per proselytizer, though the theoretically inclined are liable to punt, and just come out for Change as a Way of Life.)

These innovations have been generally useful and I’ve consistently welcomed them, despite the clouds of negativity that poisoned their arrival. I soon learned to bracket the death threats as an age-old rhetorical ploy that reminded me rather pleasantly of my Southern Baptist childhood, raptly listening every Sunday to the Rev. Amos Rice’s thunderous sermons on the eternal damnation of unbelievers.

As I have gradually assumed the mantle of curmudgeonly old guy, my tolerance for being harangued has worn thin. I was pleased to encounter Walt Crawford’s thoughts on the negative effects of negativity, quoted above, and I’ve come across similar caveats from other library folks I respect:

From David Lankes:

The minute that we talk about libraries in the context of threats we reinforce the premise that libraries are in crisis and heading into the sepia color of memory:

We must take on Google (or be like Google, or build our own Google) to save libraries!

We must be on Facebook (Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, MySpace, Geocities) to save libraries!

Screw that!

To be sure libraries need more funding, they need modernization, they need a shifted identity in the minds of our communities. To be sure there are some libraries that need to be saved in the most literal sense from closure, but the whole profession? By taking on the mantra of saving libraries, we are assuming that we [are] weak. Worse, it plays into the whole idea that we are wounded or broken.

From Barbara Fister:

Why is it that we don’t want to present a happier view of books and reading, of libraries, or of what higher education today actually does accomplish? In part, it’s the old newsroom slogan – “if it bleeds, it leads.” Bad news is more likely to get attention, and librarians are more prone than anyone to spread it – either as an emotional appeal to recruit support for libraries or to sway other librarians to a position (“if we don’t do as I say, we are dooooooomed!”)

I also suspect there’s an element of elitism involved in all of this talk of decline. We prefer to think we are among the elect who enjoy reading. We are among the rare, the special people who care about libraries or education. We are the chosen, and when the Rapture comes, we won’t be left behind.

Despite some signs of resistance, the ranks of proselytizing librarians seem only to grow. The first change-or-die innovation I personally encountered was the Great Baltimore County Duplicate Copy Imbroglio, which was concerned with what is now an old-hat wheeze: collection policy and practice. Since those innocent times almost all the crucial innovations have involved technology: integrated library systems; assorted format births and deaths; public access computers; online services; online delivery of content; and I’m sure others I’ve forgotten. The constant, explicit refrain has been that libraries must adopt cutting edge technologies or wither away. Technological determinism, to mix my science fictional universes, is the Death Star of the Borg Complex. Resistance to Moore’s Law is futile.

But e-books are different!

Librarians have been seized with a special existential horror over e-books. They foresee that their centuries-old mainstay, the paper book, will soon lose its position as the primary reading technology. Public librarians in particular fear that they will be entirely passed by if they do not have a viable system of e-book delivery to replace their dead tree collections, and soon. Here is a quote from an otherwise admirable UK governmental commission report, which recommends a national policy supporting public library e-books:

It is plain that an inability to offer digital lending will make libraries increasingly irrelevant in a relatively short time. Library services therefore do not have the luxury of waiting any longer to expand, or in many cases start, their provision of digital lending.

And how about the title of a recent symposium from the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA, the primary international library agency): “E-books in libraries: A global question of survival?” No less than the global survival of libraries is at stake. This time it’s for real!

Yet I counsel equanimity in the face of the e-book Moloch, even if we suppose that it demands the sacrifice of our print collections.

A library is a growing organism

According to Ranganathan, a library that is not growing must be dying.

It is an accepted biological fact that a growing organism alone will survive. An organism which ceases to grow will petrify and perish. The Fifth Law invites our attention to the fact that the library, as an institution, has all the attributes of a growing organism. A growing organism takes in new matter, casts off old matter, changes in size and takes new shapes and forms.

Are proselytizing librarians simply echoing Ranganathan? After all, Ranganathan’s work is filled with amusing and instructive examples of libraries and librarians whom he calls out for practices not in accord with the Five Laws. But he differs from the proselytizers in both substance and tone. Ranganathan is cheerful, optimistic, and future-oriented, never negative or bullying; he is immune to the Borg Complex

In Five Laws Ranganathan talks about growth in two senses: expansion in size, which takes up most of the chapter; and evolutionary differentiation, an increase in variety. In a later book, Library Book Selection (1952, 2nd edition 1966), he introduces the concepts of “child” growth as opposed to “adult” growth. A child grows by continuously becoming larger, which is the sense that he dwells on in the earlier book:

On the other hand, adult growth is characterized by absence of overall growth; it consists of addition and weeding out, more or less balancing each other.

Combining Ranganathan’s notion of adult growth with his appreciation of the mechanisms of evolutionary change leads to a more nuanced and relaxed view of how technologies affect libraries. In business terms, those suffering from the Borg Complex routinely characterize technologies/innovations as critically disruptive when they are almost always sustaining. The core technology of library service is not books, whether codex or electronic; it is writing and reading, or more broadly, recorded communication. That people may cease to value reading at all is the disruptive threat facing public libraries, not whether they read from a codex or a screen.

What are the advantages if we look at e-books as a sustaining rather than a disruptive technology?

  • We are less likely to commit to a poor system simply because it’s first on the scene. In the words of Carrie Ramp, describing the current state of e-book borrowing from public libraries: “the complexity is beyond mind-boggling. Teaching grandma UNIX seems easier.”
  • We are more likely to wait for the market to sort itself out, and not waste scarce funds on alternatives that soon disappear.
  • We are more likely to pursue long-term policy solutions to licensing and ownership issues, rather than relying on short-term technological work-arounds.
  • We are more likely to develop coordinated and even cooperative systems, rather than each library fending for itself.
  • We are more likely to take into account the affordances of e-books and how they mesh with specific reader audiences, rather than simply installing the technology without thought as to how it fits with our readers and the existing environment. (We are more likely to market, rather than just announce.)

There is one big disadvantage. It takes patience, money, and lots of hard work to plan and deploy a new service that is sustainable, responsive, and meets the specific needs of actual readers. It is much more exciting to move on to the next big thing.

The vital principle

Ranganathan embraced growth wholeheartedly because he saw it as sustaining the life of extraordinarily varied individual libraries within the context of a single more fundamental “vital principle.” For him, that vital principle was education.

For me, the vital principle motivating library service is reading in the broadest sense, as the practice of making meaning, akin to education but at a deeper level. I think this identification with reading goes far to explain why communities reverence their local libraries: a person’s relationship to reading, both personal and social, is uniquely constructed from the specific places of his or her reading experience. Not The Library, but my library. Not momentary technologies of books and information, but the most productive human practice of modern civilization: reading.

Ranganathan closes his chapter on library growth, and the Five Laws book, with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita that illustrates his understanding of the spiritual workings of the vital principle (II, 22-24). You may want to commit it to memory, and recite it the next time you are visited with an invocation of The Death of The Library.

As a person casts off worn-out garments and puts on others that are new, so does the embodied soul cast off worn-out forms and enter into others that are new.

Weapons do not cleave him; fire does not burn him; water does not make him wet; nor does the wind make him dry.

He cannot be cloven; he cannot be burnt; he cannot be wetted; he cannot be dried; he is eternal, all-pervading, steadfast and immovable; he is the same for ever.

Links, citations and asides


  1. Vicki Hibbert says:

    I think the predictions of the death of libraries made by librarians are mostly born of fear of the loss of their own livelihood – and perhaps also some subterranian belief in the Rapture as Roy suggests. From my perspective the two best things to happen to public libraries in the past 20 years are Amazon and coffee shops in bookstores. Amazon encourages people to expect better, easier, faster service (and I don’t know a librarian who doesn’t enjoy using it for themselves). By “people” I also mean library patrons and when library patrons ask more of libraries and expect more of libraries it can result in the betterment of libraries and librarians. I mention the coffee shops not because it is a good idea to have for-profit retail establishments in libraries – it usually hasn’t worked out well for the retail establishments as library planners failed to realize that the coffee shops in bookstores are usually “loss leaders”. However, the humanizing of bookstores by allowing food and drink also caused many people to expect the same of libraries. And why not? Can anyone really delude themselves into thinking people who borrow stuff from libraries never eat or drink at home while using what they borrowed?

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