FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 11/04/2011

In The Beginning Was The . . . Library, Sort Of

Volume 4, Issue 13                  November 1, 2011

An e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College

By Myron Schirer-Suter

Occupy Wall Street was the first. But soon others followed, appearing at last count in some 1,280 towns and cities around the globe. Taking their cues from Tahrir Square and the broader Arab Spring, these ‘Occupiers’ have used social media to coordinate their protests. And as they’ve taken up residence, various “Do-It-Yourself” civic services have sprung up to support them.

One of those services, I’m happy to say, is libraries. In the northeast corner of New York’s Zuccotti Park (a.k.a., Liberty Plaza), for instance, is the People's Library. Occupy Boston has the A to Z (Audre Lorde to Howard Zinn) Library on Dewey Square. The Star Books Library on St. Paul’s Square in London has hosted author book signings. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland also boast Occupy Libraries, many staffed by Occubrarians who have master’s degrees in—what else?—library and information science.

Sure, they’re making books available to the rallying folks, but these Occupy Libraries are also collecting information about the movement. At the A – Z Library in Boston, they created binders of documents printed from the movement’s online sites, binders that mimic the reference materials in your grandmother’s library. Their aim? To collect all the documents produced by each working group as well as a sampling of the ephemera that captures day-to-day ‘occupation’ at Dewey Square.

The Occupiers have been called well-educated, middle class twenty-somethings, individuals who might have grown up believing that with the Internet, they no longer needed libraries. Yet, even as most of these protestors accessed information from their smart phones, they felt compelled to create libraries. Why?

Libraries are think tanks. Forums for reading and conversation. Obviously, Occupiers didn’t originate the concept of the library, but they intuitively ‘get it.’ That is, they value libraries as archives of learning, as storehouses of knowledge and creativity; so much so, they created their own version.

So in the beginning of this movement—and hundreds of others throughout history—was the library. Sort of. Here’s what I mean:

The Apostle John began his gospel with, “In the beginning was the Word.” While John was not referring to a written word, the written word has indeed been central to human society. A history of writing and reading is a history of innovation. And the currency of humanity began not on Wall Street, but in Mesopotamia, first on clay tablets, then in Egypt on papyrus, and on to China on bone, wood, shells, and silk.

Medium like papyrus, parchment, and eventually paper gained the upper hand. Well-educated ancients had their own “mobile devices”; the Romans used wax-covered tablets to write and erase text, tablets used for writing notes or accounts, or teaching children to write, much as the slate was used in nineteenth century schools. But tablets were by design temporary, and unless the text was transcribed into a permanent medium, were never added to a library collection.

Documents longer than a sheet of paper were handwritten on scrolls and read sequentially. It was difficult—if not impossible—to mark a specific point in the text, which led to the adoption of the book as the medium of choice. By the fourth century, the book replaced the scroll and remained the lead technology for a thousand years.

That was no small thing: the creation of books was labor-intensive and therefore expensive and rare. Each book was copied by hand. No wonder the introduction of Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type, printing press produced a sea change. As books became inexpensive and plentiful, libraries became, well, movements.

For the next 500 years, printed books ruled. Microphotography developed in the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the technology took off. Between 1927 and 1935, the Library of Congress microfilmed over three million pages, and it became a new currency in libraries. Microforms preserved information sources—such as newsprint—that did not age well. And as libraries expanded in size, many (as late as the 1990s) converted periodical collections to microform, creating new space for new resources.

Soon after, the digital information age was born, and academic libraries were the first department on many campuses to use computers. Information suddenly became available to users via computers. In my first librarian position, the full-text of journal articles was available on CD-ROM, and only a few years later, that morphed into online resources delivered via the Internet.

Now, journal articles, reference materials and countless sources for understanding any issue from Wall Street to Main Street have moved online. In a library such as the one where I work, we provide students access to 150,000 books, another 70,000 e-books. But like most libraries, we also provide access to thousands of LPs, CDs, VHS tapes, DVDs, filmstrips, 16 mm movies, slides, and of course, archives of people who led movements that changed cultures.

My point? Libraries will not be replaced by the Internet. Rather they will work in tandem with it, linking all types of people to all manner of information. Libraries have always adapted to new technologies for new times, and so, the library as place, as a think tank and a storehouse will remain vital as long as people seek knowledge and change. Yes, librarians will continue to help users find the information they need . . . even in a tent on Dewey Square.

Dr. Myron Schirer-Suter is the director of library services at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He lives with his wife and son in Beverly, MA.


Myron Schirer-Suter