Loving Your Library in the Digital Age
There have been some good posts over at the new Historical Society blog–I want to respond to Chris Beneke’s, in particular, some time soon. (I’d like to try and keep our readers abreast of some of the other relevant blogs out there that touch on the early American history world–maybe I’ll do a feature on them and see if any of my suggestions inspire Jeff to update the ol’ blogroll.)
For now I’d like to respond to Randall Stephens’s post, “Goodbye Library?” with a defense of brick and mortar, shelving and circ-desks. (Although when the digital revolution comes, I’ll be cheering when they line the microfilm readers up against the wall.)
This year I’m working on a book on the Boston Tea Party, and I’ve had a lot of chances to reflect on how I gain access to sources. For a topic like this, it’s absolutely amazing how much I can read without ever leaving my study: all the Boston newspapers from 1773 are in America’s Historical Newspapers. Most of the known pamphlets, broadsides, and books are on Early American Imprints. (Thanks, AAS!) Over on the other side of the pond, a lot of the relevant British material is at ECCO, although British newspapers can sometimes be harder to track down. Furthermore, even once you start needing nineteenth-century serials, or Benjamin Bussey Thatcher’s Traits of the Tea Party (which Alfred F. Young used extensively for The Shoemaker and the Tea Party), or the Reports of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston (which include the Boston Town Records and Selectmen’s Minutes), much of that stuff has been scanned on Google Books. Many of the major academic journals are available through such resources as Project Muse, JSTOR, etc., although the gaps here are sometimes huge, and immensely frustrating. As clunky or misleading or incomplete as these electronic resources can sometimes be, if you need to double-check a fact or a footnote without leaving your study, they’re massively convenient.
And yet, as catchy as it sounds to wave “Goodbye, Library!” I don’t think any of us (including Stephens) are ready to leave them yet. I’ve had the honor to have library cards at some great libraries: Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library, Yale University Libraries (particularly Sterling Memorial Library and the Beinecke Library), University of Virginia Libraries (particularly Alderman Library), Columbia University Libraries (particularly Butler and Avery, and I like Barnard’s, too), and Tisch Library at Tufts (which is smaller than the research libraries, but scrappy and surprisingly comprehensive for its size, and there’s a great view from the roof). And while two of those library systems (CU and Yale) are woefully exclusive when it comes to access and borrowing, the rest of them aren’t (last time I checked), at least where local residents are concerned. Here are some of the major reasons why, even at a research university with access to multiple electronic databases, I’ll always feel that libraries are a crucial part of my work and life.
- Rare or unique archival materials. Sometimes I’ll find out, miserably, that a manuscript collection is housed far away in some crazy, inaccessible place. And given the shrinking of travel budgets and the high cost of fuel, plus the usual time constraints, it really is tempting sometimes to hope that they’ll just put it all online someday and I can save myself the trouble. Except for a few things: using scanned manuscripts (or crack-brained OCR) online is a nightmare–tough to search, tougher to browse, and a pain to read. The only thing going for these scanned manuscripts is that they preserve the originals from our oily fingers. Plus, some collections are really intelligently organized, and you miss out when you don’t consult the collection in person. Also, sometimes we really do enjoy the excuse to travel (even if you’re just an early American historian and London is as exotic as it gets).
- Browseable stacks. As beautiful as the New York Public Library, the British Library, and the Library of Congress are, none will ever be my favorite library to use. Why? I’m a stack rat, through and through, and these libraries force you to call up most of their materials. For me, nothing will ever compare to the serendipitous effect of scanning through the stacks and coming upon a book you never knew you needed–you can replicate this to some extent by clicking on the “Subject” of a book you already know in an electronic library catalog, but those categories are never perfect, whereas you can spend all day traipsing through the E’s and F’s (or the B’s and H’s and N’s and P’s…), seeing where your mind takes you.
- Knowledgeable, experienced librarians. They really do know stuff we don’t, and most of the ones I’ve met really take joy in helping out scholars, students, budding young readers, etc. I really wish my students spent more time talking to these folks than I suspect they do.
- The buzz of studious patrons. Libraries are places of quiet contemplation and/or (now with the rise of in-house coffee shops) active conversation. The frisson of other people working helps me work in turn. I’ve never been much of a coffee shop writer (I feel like I’m renting the table, hot liquids and laptops don’t mix, the caffeine high will eventually crash, and the vibe just isn’t the same), and although I usually do most writing in a home office, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how much I can accomplish in a library.
- All the usual reasons to love libraries. They believe in the promotion of literacy, equity of access, and intellectual freedom. They are refuges for people who live the life of the mind, gateways for those in search of knowledge, and public spaces vital to healthy communities. The internet and home computers allow each of us to work and play in our own little boxes, not too differently from televisions, video games, and private book collections. Libraries celebrate the spirit of coming together to share in the pursuit of knowledge.
In short, I appreciate electronic resources as much as the next person–I’m no luddite–but if you’re a history person and you don’t love libraries, you’re probably in the wrong field.