Libraries have essentially always held a very unique, if not sacred, role in the history and culture of the world itself. Whether this role has been manifested in its physical designation as a concrete place meant to store written knowledge and information or in its almost mythical position as gatekeeper of civilization’s progress and harvested growth, the institution of libraries and the written word has been one of the hallmarks of society for almost as long as society itself has existed. However, as the age grows ever more modern, one must contemplate whether or not physical libraries should continue to bear both titles of primary information keepers as well as historic figureheads of sorts, or if a shift might be underway that will alter the world of documented knowledge forever.
In 1731 the Library Company of Philadelphia was founded by a group of friends that included Benjamin Franklin, and is widely regarded as setting the precedent for the first truly public library in America. As at this point in history an education and proper access to knowledge and materials was still relatively scarce if one wasn’t from high class or wealth, the introduction of the concept that the common man could borrow books and references at his leisure to expand his own intellectual horizons was relatively groundbreaking. And as time went on, the library trend only exploded all the more. From “Pack Horse Librarians” to developing into a staple component of schools and colleges across the nation, it seemed that the mark of a library meant the mark of unparalleled intellectual establishment and growth. There was something hallowed about the concept of a building that merely within a series of walls could physically contain essentially the entire foundation of the growth of civilization and its knowledge, history, and future, and that it would be recorded forever in undeniable ink.
However, time continued to march on. And with it, the unstoppable force of innovation and evolution, effects which certainly did not ignore the institution of physical libraries. In the eyes of some, the technology tidal wave might as well as have spelled digital disaster for the classic library. With the same information previously preciously guarded within the vaults of spines and pages suddenly readily available at a simple click or google search, not only did concrete libraries seem to lose their usefulness, but also the information they held a bit of its reverence. Not only was information not as special or well-earned anymore, but it also lost a piece of credibility with the notion that essentially anyone could post something on the internet as fact without the same process of validation that a physical book might. With the speed and higher chance at instant gratification that internet sources offer, many wonder what place physical libraries should hope to have in modern society.
In the Declaration of Independence, a phrase is included that states that all people are entitled to the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is my humble opinion that these rights indeed extend to every citizen regardless of walk of life, and that these rights include access to knowledge and information. Historically, this role of providing access was held almost exclusively by physical libraries, which in their time, were initially groundbreaking themselves in extending such rights. Presently, the overwhelming cultural shift towards technology and digital sharing of information has in a sense extended this right in its own way, providing the common man a less formal and faster avenue for accessing such knowledge. This all to say, it is certainly the argument of some that both avenues of intellect cannot continue, that one or the other must crawl out of the battle utterly victorious. However, I feel that a hybrid of sorts is the best solution to this quandary. Yes, technology is a great way to disperse information quickly, cheaply, and easily. However, the cultural and historic significance that the physical library possesses will never, and physically can never, be replicated with a simple “www…”. I believe that society jointly bearing the cost of perhaps smaller yet still substantial physical establishments of learning combined with collective innovation within the realm of electronic harvesting of knowledge is the best way to preserve society’s innovations while not inhibiting its future ones. While I will certainly retain an element of realism regarding the progression of information diffusion pertaining to electronic sources, sometimes classic just cannot be defined by a mere hashtag. And for that reason, I feel that collective instead of divisive innovation is truly the future of the American library system.