When I was a rookie in the world of libraries, I thought the whole business was about books. You know. The rectangle- shaped objects shelfed on the walls, containing sheets of paper that have obscure black figures printed on them. Words, sentences, chapters, universes.
That was two years ago, at the time when I became the president of The Finnish Library Association, out of the blue. I had, of course, consumed the library services a lot, but I had never visited the other side of the counter myself. I was not a librarian.
So what kind of place was my library, back then?
During the days of innocence, that lasted until the aftermath of the day I was elected to the post, I had a romantic and nostalgic approach towards the libraries: the real library, I thought, is a place of books, silence, dust and such. That’s how it was when I turned ten, and ever since.
A couple of years ago, thinking of a library still took me back to the mid 70’s, when I cycled to the local library to borrow books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who taught me that a lion is numa, elephant is tandor and Tarzan means ‘white skin’ in the language of the great apes that lived in the forgotten jungles of Africa. The Burroughs books were all there, twentyone white backs in a row, at a lower shelf on your left, telling a lot about the wild side of lord Greystoke. These books permitted me to escape the anxieties of civilization, such as the parental demand to remain seated at the table until everyone had finished eating. They took me to an other world. And the journey started in a library.
That’s how I thought of a library, and that’s how the majority of people visiting the libraries still think.
After the beginning of my presidency at the library association, many things changed. Most importantly, I learned soon that libraries are about lots of other things than Johannes Gutenberg could imagine. I learned that, basically, my tarzanite memories guided me wrong.
Books are there, quite often, at least, but the interesting and relevant side of the modern library is hidden in the undercurrent of ones and zeros.
The bits. They are there, behind everything, even though we can’t see them. They can appear in various visible forms, but they never get exhausted by them. The current of the bits is the Real of the new library, or the platonic idea of it.
That’s how it is in the modern library, at least. We can’t see the bits, and therefore we are destined to cope with their gawky expressions that construct the rather dysfunctioning material world we live in. The bits are perfect, the books, the CDs and such are not.
The problem is that we have to deal with this imperfect material world. I think that is why we are, deep down, so unsatisfied with the symbol of the entire library institution, the printed book.
When organizing, when making listings and catalogues, the electric information lines up neatly somewhere between your screen and the depths of the server. And just when you think that the world is in perfect order, you watch over your sholder only to realize that the physical world is ruled by gods of chaos and disharmony: the books are not on the shelves, they are in the wrong order and a couple of them have missing pages. There is nothing you can do to abort, retry or ingnore these fatal fails, unless you walk to the shelves and do the tricks required, with your hands.
Would the library be a better, more organised and more harmonious place, if the insufficient matter was replaced by the perfection of the digital current of information? Of course it would. (The ebook will be the future of libraries, after certain problems associated with it, are solved. I am not going into them, now. I just pretend that they will be solved, to return to my point.)
The visitors, however, are not seeking the beauty of the pure ideas when they drop into a library. They are looking for books. These dusty, heavy and old- fashioned objects that contain all the magic one can imagine, and the ability to take one to another world.
People do not see the bits, nor do they have the need to imagine them. There is no emotional tie between the clients and the pure beauty of the ones and nils. People love the books.
They still do. After introducing myself as a representative of a library association I have heard a great number of times a personal confession of love:
the same childhood memories of bookshelves, I have myself; the triggering content of the books on them, the nostalgic smell and the silence of the most exciting building of our childhood.
I guess the library has changed, and it will change a lot more. Yet still, we have to rely on the support of the citizens, of the visitors: the memories of the smell of the books, the romance, the excitement and the nostalgia, to get our wonderful new library funded.
These same cofessions of love are what the librarians keep hearing over a glass of sparkling wine, at the city halls and official receptions. There is a toast, and a speech by a city official or a politician, confessing his or her personal relationship with books and the libraries.
When meeting with these people, my point has been that if you love us, it is very easy to show it. It is in fact once a year, when making the budget.
Confession of love can be presented in a most meaningful way, in the form of ones and zeros, on the bank account.
There would not be a dime, did not the decicion makers of the municipalities love libraries at all. We just have to seduce them to love the libraries a bit more. By triggering the memories, and at the same time, whispering to the other ear of the libraries’ ability to establish a totally new kind of educated, profitable and empowering knowledge society, where the books will still smell as they used to do, we can perhaps succeed.
So we need the nostalgia, transformed into ones and zeros. That’s how it is.
Writer, educator, politician,
broadcast media specialist,
President of the Finnish Library Association