The Library as Storyplace

"A reader can still count on finding everything at a library, and there is still something emotionally secure about that."

One Sunday night in 2006, I saw a yuppie parked in her sport utility vehicle outside my village library. Lit by the dim light of her laptop propped against the steering wheel, she was using the library’s wireless network—before Monday morning deadlines at the office, I guessed. The library that never closed was being born.

Almost 20 years later, you don’t need a car. Walk or Wi-Fi.  I can’t tell where my library begins and ends anymore. I seem to be in it all the time. Online, the library comes to me as my home page—my sister in Idaho called the day she finally got that service installed there. They had completed the nationwide library-access project started in 2015. I can enter my library account through a book icon on my desktop, but down the street in every neighborhood, there is a wooden front door, too, with hinges and a book-drop slot, and live librarians beyond it.

When I arrive at the library, whichever way, I browse or ask a librarian for help or advice about what to read next. I browse electronic and print media—text, picture, and sound—in a free, easy, tempting system. That desktop icon may be the only book in my house, but stories thrive and cry and shout and love as they always have—only now they do it off the page, as well.

I remember when libraries smelled like books and entering a library meant walking into a maze of stacks. Preprinted books are rare today; fewer titles get published each year. It’s too expensive to make paper in mass now that all the forests in North America are protected. Books are like truffles. I pull one off the shelf when I hope the touch of it will hold me just as well as the arc of its narrative. But books don’t feel that good anymore. I grew up learning how to properly break the spine of a new hard cover so it would last forever. Those bindings were worth keeping. Today, paper tears easily, and the limp cover, the stamp of the colophon and the end papers barely hold up to the task. These supposedly more durable plastic “paper” books are just unpleasant. A book shouldn’t be waterproof.

It still means something to the critics to have your book printed on paper, but the whirlpools of review intrigue happen in an ocean beyond the backwater of the paper elite. And that’s true even if literary criticism gains vitality from some occasional Sturm und Drang about these luxury status symbols.

A reader can still count on finding everything at a library, and there is still something emotionally secure about that. Whether online or physical, ideastores—OK, ideastores isn’t the nicest word, and I have some nostalgia for the days when they were called bookstores—take the higher profit margins that come with sales via download and print on demand. Digitized commerce has led to the outsourcing of book know-how to computers, so readers get stuck talking to computers, and the quality of the programming varies remarkably. Not true in libraries, where people, other readers, drive the service of all the content, downloadable or not. Libraries work.

Light as they are, eReaders make reading fun: They have massive memories and live uplinking for research or ongoing chats with virtual book groups. All the books I’ve ever read sit on my hand card in my wallet (well, quite a few unread ones, too). Print on demand does the work for the few readers who need or want to print a book, and the look and feel of the books it outputs are about as good as those preprinted by publishers (as long as you can handle the plasticy paper). Print-on-demand kiosks, all the rage 10 years ago when idea industry start-ups struggled for market share against the old-fashioned preprinted book, still stake out corners in most libraries, but they get harder to find.

No one but a hard collector wants to print a file. Publishing was transformed by the download. You can digest stories in any increment imaginable, with purchasing models for each and personal storage systems, which make it easy enough to track what you’ve got, what you’ve read already and what’s waiting to be opened. For libraries, flexible digital-rights management systems also brought about a transformation. After the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Google-Hollywood in 2017, Congress reinforced copyright but with the flow of ideas as a priority, and 2019 saw the key legislation that finally protected and fostered the right for libraries to lend content in all its forms, firmly establishing their ability to fulfill their core mission: to enable intellectual freedom and an informed citizenry. We’re lucky in the United States. In England, libraries are little more than physical repositories of old books; no one uses them, and funding is collapsing. There, they allowed libraries to be seen as archives only, not the living cultural organisms they are. Just try lending a file with British Digital Rights Management—your copy will drop off your screen for good, and a message will go out to the producer as soon as you try.

Concerns about who gets to read what don’t affect what’s published by U.S. libraries. Open access is the standard. Libraries, long digitizers of their physical collections, started out creating electronic access to all sorts of special collections and print books. Librarians took the obvious next step and provided the first public access to the many who still could not afford their own computers and connectivity. Then they supplied the tools for authors to work with new virtually dramatic storytelling forms.

A digital divide was spanned, and the library emerged as the place where different art forms could meet to make new types of art. Great art often comes from a lone genius, the artist before an easel, a Beethoven plinking ivories, but more and more great art forms have come from collaboration: First, there was Sophocles and his chorus; then, Puccini and his tenors and sopranos; then, Polanski and Nicholson in “Chinatown”; then, dear old YouTube—all created by more or less organized groups. Now there’s all that plus collaborative, multimedia, networked books: teamtales.

The library made teamtales happen by creating a unique kind of meeting place that works reliably. The library is where it’s all available: know-how on business models and how-to for cameras, animation, acoustics, annals, genomes and rhetorical dictionaries—you name it. Plainly, the library is a creative space that supports storytelling and, now, collaborative storytelling in a unique way.

Exploring all that creative output has never been easier. I wander through extensive reading maps that librarians create to link from book to book to video to book to magazine and more. This “Glass Bead Game” of cross-references connects the entire collection, no matter the format, as well as other online resources that reside beyond the library’s collection. Better yet, librarians figured out how to represent this network, both visually and textually, to help me discover the relationships however I prefer to do so on a given day. Sometimes I like moving through a landscape of pictures. Sometimes I relate better to a maze of linked relationships represented like an old-fashioned tag cloud. Sometimes I listen my way through the collection and navigate with voice prompts. Libraries have always been about creating opportunities for “serendipitous discovery.” When I was a kid, I liked to find a book on the shelf by using the catalog and then discover what I was really looking for by looking at the books that surrounded it on the shelves. Maps like these make that kind of serendipity all the more possible.

The capacity of libraries to collect and store many titles in electronic form (and to keep up with preservation issues, thanks to increased private and governmental funding) meant that libraries had to solve the problem of browsability—after all, even I was raised to choose what to read by picking up actual books. Librarians were the first to vivify electronic collections by creating different visual environments that readers could explore as they browsed. There are already some 30 options available for this type of searching, but the goal of this still nascent search engine is to have as many mutations as there are users with preferences, taking advantage of user profiling and user modifications to personalize the experience. Real libraries work well—much better than home libraries ever have. Not only can I find what I’m looking for at the library, I can also count on the computer system to work, while at home, even my Wi-Fi fails from time to time.

My London friend says this ubiquitous library has become a monster because no one creates individually anymore. I think she’s missing the point. Linear narratives written by single authors still dominate the literary world. The best-seller lists show their popularity. That doesn’t mean that the electronic book, especially when networked, hasn’t revolutionized storytelling. Long ago, the graphic novel bound words with still images at a high level of literary quality. Now, collaborative storytelling, mixed media and simulated reality mix it up. Teamtales aren’t going away. Nor is the broader trend. Readers like to move into and out of alternate media to receive the story. And sometimes they like to choose where they go, to discover alternate realities or to create new ones. This happened first, long ago, in gaming, but it moved into literature soon after, and the results recall the benefits of great revolutions in technology. In this one, as in past revolutions such as the advent of the printing press and then of electronic word processing, technology has enabled more people to tell stories. Now, they often choose to do it together, and it is either beautiful or ugly or somewhere in between.

Libraries have had a big hand in this revolution, but then, that’s the point. They are unsurpassed as a meeting place of intellectual exploration and practice. They were designed to be, so no big surprise there, I guess.

About the Author

Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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