image courtesy of Courtesy Bexar County Government
image courtesy of Bexar County Government

The Time article that covers the Bexar County Bibliotech Library in San Antonio, Texas asks a basic question, and it asks it right in the byline. It’s not a unique question; it’s not anywhere close to the first time it’s been asked. It’s a question that captures a lot of anxiety around a particular kind of public space that is, even when it isn’t given a lot of direct attention, pretty firmly embedded in our cultural subconscious.

Everyone likes libraries. I think most people regard them as some kind of absolute public good, and as somehow wholesome, vaguely populist-in-an-unscary-way spaces. In a country of anti-intellectuals, libraries are intellectual spaces that hardly anyone dislikes, or at least will admit to disliking. It stands to reason that we get protective of them. We don’t love it when they start changing (we also don’t love it when they shut down, which is happening all the time all over the place).

So Time is asking this question, and while it’s presented in a very neutral way, I think it’s a question that’s become sort of fraught as we’re in the process of working things out.

The all-digital space – stocked with 10,000 e-books and 500 e-readers –resembles an Apple store. But is that really a library?

Is it really a library?

This is a problematic question, first of all, because it proceeds from the assumption that there is or ever was a real library, even in theory – a single ideal type of Librariness. In classic IRL fetishistic terms, a more implicit assumption is that any space characterized by digital media must somehow be less real than one that isn’t. But there’s something else going on here, I think, something that has more to do with how we conceive of space in time and how we confront the fundamentally unfamiliar.

That last, crucial assumption – and the one that, to my mind, trips the whole thing up – is that libraries have always been essentially the same kinds of spaces.

Which of course they haven’t.

Libraries have been kept by kings, pharaohs, and emperors; they’ve been cared for by monks and scientists; they’ve been in universities, monasteries, palaces, and the most humble buildings. They’ve been open and closed to the public. They’ve been sites for research and places where things have been forgotten. They’ve housed papyrus, parchment, paper, and bamboo – now they “house” ebooks. The idea that there’s some kind of “real” library out there against which everything else might be measured is patently ridiculous.

Not that there isn’t a single element that all these spaces have in common: They’re all built around the preservation of knowledge and the facilitation of access to it.

Which is exactly what the Bibliotech Library is doing.

We have this weird, romantic, fundamentally sensual idea of books, one that approaches fetishization in its own right. We experience them by touch, by smell – both the books and by extension the spaces that the books are in. And we experience books in terms of time. In a world that seems both temporal and violently atemporal, they are profoundly time-laden. A lot of us still have a very hard time getting our heads around a book that doesn’t possess this characteristic, at least not in the ways we’ve come to understand. As I wrote in another post on books and time a while ago:

We are accustomed to books being heavy with time. On some level, it’s unnerving when they aren’t – or at least not in the way that we’re used to….When we hold an ereader, we are aware – if only subconsciously – that time is not there in the same way that it is with a dead tree book. It doesn’t connect to all the temporally-laden ideas of Bookness that we carry around in our collective cultural memory.

And again, the object that occupies the space in which we experience it strongly determines how we experience that space, when the space and the object are so closely identified with each other. Book = library – therefore library = book. That means that, if books are time-laden, we perceive libraries (and some bookstores) in the same way. This stands in sharp contrast to how we experience digital “space” – as something entirely absent or outside of time.

What I want to suggest is that while we perceive physical space in general as being temporal – as being something with a past, a present, and a future – we can also easily fall into the trap of unconsciously perceiving spaces with particular temporal power as somehow conceptually static and unchanging. In a perverse sense, we can fall into the trap of swinging around 180 degrees and perceiving them as atemporal again.

(In fact, just as an aside, I think all spaces of all kinds are both temporal and atemporal in all meaningful respects. But that’s like fifty other posts.)

We understand libraries – temporally powerful spaces because of their contents – as a particular kind of public space, and as always having been that kind of space. We have a hard time imagining anything so different that can still call itself a library. But what the Bibliotech Library reveals is that libraries, like all spaces marked by a certain kind of use tied to a certain kind of technology, are constantly changing as use and technology change. If libraries are sites for the preservation and access of knowledge – literature and art and music most definitely included – then of course they’ll change as how we consume those things changes. The question shouldn’t be is this really a library. The question should be what kind of library is this.

This isn’t the end of libraries. This is libraries becoming something else. And they’ve done that before.


Sarah collects and preserves information of dubious usefulness on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry