The Long Hall in Trinity College Dublin is less a Library and more a museum. You would need a good head for heights to work here; the mezzanine structure gives a whole new meaning to ‘books on the top shelf.’
It’s sad but I believe books have had their day. Just as monastic scribes gave way to the printing press, so books are becoming digital and the Kindle will be spoken of alongside Gutenburg in the history of communication. We will tell grandchildren about a place called a Library, where we borrowed real books then took them back and borrowed some more; if we were late we had to pay a fine and in a Library you didn’t talk, you were quiet. It was a contemplative place, a bit like a church, only they’re going out of fashion too. Today, Trinity College Library occupies that space between utility and relic. Visiting the Library is tagged onto seeing the Book of Kells and neither are free. Prepaying 9 euros over the Internet makes no difference to the system. You still need a ticket with a barcode. One of many things the Internet can’t do is remove the need to queue.
The Book of Kells, four illuminated Gospel manuscripts, offers a tangible link with the past but you can’t touch it. Over 1200 years old, it represents a heritage from a different age. What were once valuable and rare sources of communication are now even more so. The Book of Kells lies behind glass in a darkened room, no photographs please, a symbol of a different age when access to what passed as knowledge was limited to church and state. Today we take such access for granted but the nature of the book itself is changing; the idea of an individual volume in your hand is being replaced with a digital reader containing multiple volumes downloaded from the Internet. The Public Library is under threat and not just because of government cuts to front line services. We need to take care because the any-time any-where, instant gratification of digital data comes at a cost.
We need to hold onto our memories of libraries; shafts of sunlight in dusty reading rooms, the card index catalogue, the shelf upon shelf of hardbacks, some borrowed frequently, some never at all, the escape from the noise of the traffic and the bustle of the High Street with the promise of further escape into literature. Humankind has always loved stories.
The Internet is enabling a dangerous social shift. As we moved from oral to print traditions, so the move from analogue to digital culture risks the loss of what was once valued. Books are more than artifacts – they are a symbol of our times. They represent the communication of ideas and without ideas we are nothing. We need to hold onto what matters. Letting go of books is to let go of more than we might realize.