Libraries turn new chapter, still vital for society says columnist

Libraries have evolved, but are still an integral part of our society, says Edmonton Journal city columnist Paula Simons.

Simons gave a presentation at the Fort Saskatchewan Public Library on Sept. 26 speaking to the importance of the public library in the digital age.

While the instruments of delivery have changed, libraries still play an important role in serving as a hub to house and protect knowledge.

“The role of the library, especially the community library, is still an absolutely vital one,” Simons said. “And not just because they’re filled with computer terminals.”

Simons started her presentation with a story about the Egyptian god Thoth and how the pharaohs of ancient Egypt were reluctant to accept the invention of writing because they feared it would harm people’s memories.

She noted that the written word faced further skepticism in ancient Greece, with Aristotle rejecting his pupil Plato’s dedication to the craft.  But Plato was unwavering.

“And that’s why, ironically, thousands of years later, you and I can share the story of Thoth and his pharaoh,” Simons said.

For thousands of years, libraries served as repositories of knowledge. They served two primary roles: to organize, safeguard and protect the books and to encourage a love of reading and knowledge.

Libraries made knowledge more accessible in both ancient and contemporary society — for better or for worse.

“The public library allowed ordinary people access to the kinds of books, the kinds of information power, that had only belonged to the privileged, the aristocrats, to the scholars and to the rich before,” Simons said.

“And yet Socrates had a point – every time we make a leap forward in communications technology, we sacrifice something pure,” she added.

What has been sacrificed is the exclusivity of knowledge, putting it in the hands of the irresponsible, the malicious and mischievous. Or in contemporary terms: internet trolls.

“Books, movies, music, all the things libraries offered 10 or 15 years ago, these days we can command them on our phones and on our fingertips … and the librarian, as a guardian and gatekeeper of knowledge, has also been dethroned,” Simons said.

“When information flows free, and there are no information priests as intermediaries, who do we believe? Who do we turn to who we can trust?”

That’s a challenge that both libraries and the World Wide Web face. And while Simons has not figured out that dilemma, she recognizes the challenge has forced libraries to change their role in the community.

Today libraries also serve as a community gathering space. They provide moms with a quiet space to peruse picture books for their children, a place of intellectual stimulation for seniors and offer homework help, outreach programs and writing workshops for youth.

And librarians, or “information ninjas” as Simons refers to them, play an important role in helping newcomers and the economically disadvantaged integrate into society.

“In many communities … the library is a place where the poor and the lonely can come for warmth and for solace, and to feel part of a larger community from which they are often largely excluded,” Simons noted.

But there’s also a danger in allowing libraries to become merely a place to hang out, Simons said. She referred to the 2012 film ‘Robot & Frank’, where a philanthropist seeks to create a community centre library without actual books, which he calls an “augmented reality library experience.” This would be a dangerous mistake, Simons said.

“Sure it’s great to be able to Google and download and swipe, but nothing can quite compete with the magic of wandering through the library stacks, the joy of serendipity of coming across books that you weren’t looking for but tumbled to accidently instead.”

And while it’s perfectly fine for libraries to offer movies, music and digital publications, there’s something to be said for them safeguarding one of the earliest forms of recorded knowledge.

“Let us be sure to entrench, at the heart of our library experience, the magic of books,” Simons said. “The magic of writing, the joy of imagination and the great gift of the great god Thoth.”

~Originally published in the Fort Saskatchewan Record 

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