restricted access Robots in the Stacks
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Robots in the Stacks
Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Editor and Publisher (bio)

What is to become of libraries in the digital age? What does it mean for libraries to be “state of the art” at a time when most users prefer to download their books rather than load them into a book bag? When more books than ever are available digitally?

Libraries are finding it increasingly difficult to justify purchasing and shelving new titles when the demand for eBooks is increasing and the use of pBooks is decreasing.

At most libraries today, the stacks are getting smaller, and the servers are getting larger.

Space formerly used for bookshelves is being converted into computer stations, study space, and coffee bars. This repurposing of the stacks is a postcard from the libraries of the future.

Existing pBooks are more for decoration than use, often merely a nostalgic nod to the library’s past rather than its future. A “service” for the serendipitous luddites who still dream of finding that special book in the stacks that will unlock their imaginations—and send their thought and writing to new heights.

While the undignified use of pBooks as set design for libraries of the future is bad news for bibliophiles, it does not portend the demise of the library. Unlike bookstores, many of which had to close in response to changes in technologies of the book and increasing eBook sales and online pBook sales, libraries do not need to rely on the continuing presence of pBooks in order to keep their doors open.

Still, like bookstores, libraries serve particular communities and select their holdings based on the needs of those communities. Unlike bookstores, they can repurpose their physical space to meet the changing informational needs of their communities.

Borders without pBooks is not a bookstore; a library without pBooks can still be a library—and perhaps an even better one.

In spite of the chorus of dystopian visions of the demise of the library in the digital age, there is an opportunity now for libraries to re-imagine themselves at a time where the majority of their physical space need not be occupied by decaying rows of pBooks. This should not be difficult as libraries have always been prime fodder for our imaginations.

They are that room in the mansion that is both mysterious and magical—and yet tinged with sadness. That space where the collected wisdom of generations can inspire one day and be gone the next, as was the case in ancient Alexandria when their magnificent library burned, leaving future generations to wonder who would commit such a horrific crime—and what irreplaceable knowledge went up in smoke? In fact, it might be argued that some of the best writing that the world has known has come in response to libraries driving our imaginations and pushing our pens.

Think of the library that drove Don Quixote “to become a knight errant, and to travel about the world with his armour and his arms and his horse in search of adventures, and to practice all those activities that he knew from his books were practiced by knights errant.” This magical place kept Quixote “so absorbed in these books that his nights were spent reading from dusk till dawn, and his days from dawn till dusk, until the lack of sleep and excess of reading withered his brain, and he went mad.” “Everything he read in books,” writes Cervantes, “took possession of his imagination: enchantments, fights, battles, challenges, wounds, sweet nothings, love affairs, storms and impossible absurdities.”

Unlike Quixote’s library, which drove him mad and into the world, Jorge Luis Borges’s mysterious library only drove him deeper into the library—which he viewed as the world. “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries,” writes Borges in “The Library of Babel” (1941). “In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing,” continues Borges. “From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly.”

If Quixote’s library was a magical “special collection,” then Borges’s library was the perfect library as it...