Libraries, Museums, and a Digital Future

DailyDose2Welcome back to the Daily Dose!

On December 6th, I attended the 225th anniversary of the College of Physician of Philadelphia Historical Medical Library. The event was celebrated with a day-long conference, titled “Emerging Roles for Historical Medical Libraries: Value in the Digital Age.” If you are a regular follower of the Daily Dose, then you know this is a topic near and dear to me, represented most recently through the Digital Collection Roundtables (of which there were three).

The conference was a meaningful engagement with an ever-present concern: what is the future of libraries? Or rather–do libraries have a future? (You can get the highlights here, on storify.) I’ve participated in similar events in recent years, and the usual response is to gather and express our continued support of the institutions, or to tell our own love story with text and why the print medium still matters.  On the other side, a number of the presenters here talked about why the digital medium matters, too–notably Simon Chaplin from the Wellcome Collection, and also Jeff Reznick from National Library of Medicine (also featured on the Dose). But one thing that perhaps wasn’t talked about quite enough–here or anywhere else–is this: how exactly do we promote the interstices? How do we convince an audience quite unlike us that these spaces and places matter? In other words, how do we think outside ourselves?

Lessons from a Travel Bug

The trouble with being me is that it’s rather difficult to be someone else at the same time. (Even if I’ve had more practice than most.) But there was once a younger, other me–and she questioned the importance–not of books–but of vacations.

You see, I used to wonder why we went through all the bother of packing and unpacking just to take back photographs. Was a fading memory worth the time and money? Rent a documentary or read a book, said my teenage self. It was a question about the value of experience and memory. Did the imagination need such feeders? Was imagination even necessary? (You might begin to see why I was compared to Sherlock Holmes and Wednesday Addams a lot as a child).

The thing is, these questions are not answerable with words. They are answered with the stiff wind off of Loch Tay in Scotland, with the smell of old wood in the Duke Humphrey’s reading room at the Bodleain. These experiences are etched in the fabric of my soul, in a hollow inaccessible from my living room. But before going and doing, I did not know this. Who, once having walked the Lake District, is happy with a documentary? Who, having seen a field of waving daffodils, is satisfied to sit in the dark and contemplate only Wordsworth? One is not a substitute for the other–rather, they should inflame the soul and point the way.

The mind needs no curation; it needs air and light. And it becomes clearer to me that digital technology, databases, search engines, and social media should be beacons pointing us towards air and light. After all, no two-dimensional image, no matter how skillfully created, will replace the thing itself. Or rather, to do so, it must provide the 3-D engagement, with sight, smell, fair wind, cool nip, texture and exertion of actual experience. In other words, it must employ endless resources, great funds of money, and many minds working tirelessly to produce a single ten-minute walk in fresh air and quiet (still possible to most of us for free). Thus, the purpose for libraries and museums–much like the purpose for a painting of sublime natural landscape–is two-fold: 1) It should give us the desire to see more out there in the world or 2) it should tide us over if the “out there” is yet beyond our reach.

A Practical Example

Big ideas are never much use without practical application. So–how do we do it? How can a library, with a digital PDF collection, get the public interested in seeing the actual books? I think we can take a lesson here from museums. Just as the display of objects and artifacts in a museum can still delight even the most jaded audience (I am thinking of high school students, here), a display of books may do the same if artfully and thematically employed. I took my students to see a book exhibit at the Kelvin Smith Library on Case Western Reserve University’s campus, and the result surprised even me. They lingered over naturalist drawings and engravings–even the ones we had seen online. The same happened when they saw the letters of Darwin for the first time: “These are really his? I mean, his wrote on this paper?” Let’s face it, ‘thingness’ is cool. Give it a quick, punchy theme, a display case with good lighting, a story–and it seems even the most rigorously plugged in will pay attention… but you DO have to get them through the doors in the first place.

How to do that will necessarily vary–but to take a page from Simon Chaplin: turn unused reading spaces into inviting, welcoming areas for groups, for discussion. That does seem antithetical to the purpose of library reading rooms… but then again, we don’t read the way we used to. Some will argue we are trying to make these spaces into wifi cafes. To that I answer: maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. I love working in cafes–who doesn’t? But imagine a cafe that also had a rare book exhibit, an artifact collection, an engaging event. My students (much like my younger self) are eager to learn the value of experiential knowledge–they just don’t know it yet. And that, I think, is our job–and our future. Bring them in, engage them, send them out into a bigger world.

We must and should embrace technology. Technology is a tool. May it help us retain the real we crave as the fuel for life and living.

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