What's a Library?

Library under construction -- along with a 50 story hotel and condo....

I live across the street from a library... or at least what used to be a library. The Donnell Library on West 53rd Street.

Today, it is a big hole in the ground.

There is going to be a 50-story condominium and Baccarat Hotel where the Donnell Library used to be.

Frankly, I will not miss the library.

Even though I lived right across the street from it for many years, I never went inside. I never sat in its reading room. I never checked out a book. I never explored its stacks to go through old volumes of bound periodicals in some research project.

Why would I do that?

Why, when I can order up pretty much anything I want online, any time I want. Admittedly, the library is free (thank you Benjamin Franklin for that concept), but the web is also free (at least so far), and instant and much much easier to reference and find stuff than in the stacks (though less romantic, in a literary sense).

I am old enough to remember wandering through the stacks at Sawyer Library at Williams when I was a student. I even had an assigned carrel - a small desk wedged in the stacks where I worked.

Those were the days.

I have a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary on my bookshelf, but when I went to see if carrel was spelled with one 'L' or two, I didn't pull out the OED. I just went to Dictionary.com.

My niece, upon seeing the first Harry Potter movie asked why Harry and Hermione and Ron always went to the 'library' at Hogwarts to look stuff up. "Why don't they just google it?"

A reasonable question.

At any rate, like the OED, the notion of a physical library still has some emotional pull for those of us who grew up with library cards and card catalogues and such. But we are old.

This morning, the NY Times announced that the design of the 'new' Donnell Library (they're putting it in the basement of the Baccarat Hotel and Condo Complex) is going to be unveiled today. It isn't exactly a library anymore. Says Enrique Norton, architect of the plan:

It has become more like a cultural space, which is about gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other," Mr. Norten said. "It's not really about just being a repository of books.

Library: a place for gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other....

Well, there you have it. Another 3,000 year old institution killed by the web.

Library of Alexandria? Oh yeah, that's where all those ancient Egyptians and Romans got to encounter one another.

Is this the future of all brick and mortar institutions? Will the New York Times building one day be seen as a place for 'gathering people' so that they can 'encounter one another?'

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's novel of the dystopian future, (and also an excellent film by Francois Truffaut (1966)), Oskar Werner plays Montag, a 'fireman' whose job is to burn books.

We seem to have bypassed all that nasty burning stuff.

But the result is pretty much the same.