In the era of widespread access to electronic information it is tempting to dismiss libraries and physical bookstores as historical relics.
First, I must confess that I am biased in favor of public libraries and bookstores. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where we were blessed to have the Carnegie Library system. The main library, at least at that time, was directly across the street from the University of Pittsburgh and had at least four floors, with the top floor accessible only by climbing a hidden set of stairs. Up in that “secret place” were books such as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and other such research publications. More often than not someone chased me off the floor, the pretext being that I was far too young to understand and appreciate the content of the books in that section of the library. But just being there was enough to spark my interest in science.
I would go downstairs and a kindly woman would direct me to books more “appropriate” to my age. From a less than perfect memory I recall the first book I ever checked out of the library on my own being A Coffin For Demetrius by Eric Ambler. I was caught in a net that I have yet to shake off.
Libraries and bookstores expose us to the world of ideas whether or not we understand them or not. We gain exposure to worlds beyond our imaginations, beyond our dreams and yes beyond even our understanding. It happens because those ideas reside in books, which are in the room with us even if we are unaware of their presence.
In the mid 70’s I walked into a bookstore having no idea what I wanted to read. The man behind the counter politely suggested Lucy, the story of an Ethiopian fossil over 3 million years that could bridge the evolutionary gap between apes and humans. My interest in human evolution has not yet waned.
Yes, certainly, it’s all electronically available over the Internet. Just log on and find what you want. But that begs the question as to just what do you want? Are we destined to leave it to Google and Yahoo to guide our understanding of life? Electronically suggested reading lists doom us to learning the same set of facts presented in different formats.
Learning beyond our comfort zones, becoming involved with ideas and concepts that are “beyond us”, stretching our imaginations, requires nurturing of the type that humans give one to another. What better place is there to find the human element than in a library or a bookstore? Do you agree? Let me hear your thoughts.