Disruptions In Many Directions
Figuring Out Who's Who

The Relevance of Libraries

"And the library?

"It can look like the most archaic institution of all.  Yet its past bodes well for its future, because libraries were never warehouses of books.  They have always been and always will be centers of learning.  Their central position in the world of learning makes them ideally suited to mediate between the printed and the digital modes of communication."

This, from the introduction to Robert Darnton's The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

I've been a fan of Darnton's ever since reading The Great Cat Massacre many years ago.  As a historian with an annales disposition, he has done some of the most interesting and useful work on the history of the book and printing and the way they have affected society and the diffusion of knowledge of anyone in the past fifty years.  As an innovator and experimenter (he founded the Gutenberg-e program), he has taken what he's learned from all of that scholarly work and looked for ways to apply it in shaping the intellectual infrastructure of the 21st century.  Now, as Director of the Harvard University Library, he is perfectly placed to assess the state of libraries and the convergence of print and digital.

Plus, he's a damn fine writer.  I would put this book on the absolutely must read list for any librarian who actually wants to understand better why the question of "how do we make libraries relevant" is a complete hand-wringing red-herring waste of time.

Of course, it's a book.  It's 206 pages (plus intro and index), and I know that a lot of the hip young techno (hand-wringing) librarians don't like to read books.  They get everything they need from blogs and twitter.  Look at it this way -- very few of Darnton's sentences are longer than 140 characters.  Take a deep breath and pretend it's just a really long twitter feed.  I know you can do it.  Two evenings, max.

It's a collection of essays (most reworked somewhat) that he's written over a number of years, divided into three sections -- looking into the future, studying the present, and considering the past and the implications that our past has for our future.   He has particularly insightful things to say about the Google Books settlement (agree with him or not, his arguments need to be considered), the advantages or disadvantages of electronic books, the importance of open access, and why the history of books matters.

Darnton is neither a technophile evangelist for the coming digital revolution, nor a grudging apologist for how it used to be "better".  His long historical perspective puts him in the position of someone who is excited about what the new technologies can offer us without losing his understanding of the importance of what we've had in the past and what needs to be preserved as we move eagerly into the unknown future.

Librarians, and the institutions that they build, have always played a critical role in the advancement and preservation of learning and culture.  Darnton's book helps to explain why that is even more the case now than ever. 



To clarify, are we doing the hand-wringing, or do we cause you to wring your hands? :) Thank you for the heads up on what sounds like an excellent book; it's now on my short to-read list, so I should be able to check it out soon! I'd also like to thank you for all of your excellent writing; I've passed several posts on to colleagues.

And, in perhaps an interesting coincidence, I was alerted to the presence of a new "style" of library (because they started following me on twitter today, of all things) that seems exactly in line with the articulating libraries' roles in our culture. Have you heard of the "Anythink" libraries in Colorado? http://www.anythinklibraries.org/


"I know that a lot of the hip young techno (hand-wringing) librarians don't like to read books. They get everything they need from blogs and twitter." - This is an instance in which you're being facetious and it's just taking me a minute to realize that, yeah?

Tom Roper

This has gone straight to the top of my reading list. I heard Darnton in Oxford last year http://www.roper.org.uk/tr/2009/04/libraries-of-the-future.html. They don't let me out very often these days, and certainly no further afield than Oxford

T Scott

Rachel -- well, teasing at the very least (Gabe, my deputy director, is a notorious twitter fiend, and I can't resist any opportunity to give him a hard time about it). Seriously, though, I do recall seeing on two separate occasions, young librarians posting on their blogs that they didn't see any point in reading the professional literature because they could get everything they needed from reading other librarians' blogs. I do NOT consider them to representative -- it kinda freaked me out!

T Scott

Amy -- thanks for the compliment. Let's just say that reading the hand-wringing of some librarians makes me wring my own hands in frustration.... I was not familiar with the Anythink libraries -- just spent a little time on the website and it's fantastic! How could anyone look at that site and NOT be optimistic about the future!!

T Scott

Tom -- I envy you getting to see Darnton speak; hope I get the chance sometime. If you enjoyed his talk, you'll love the book.

Pat Erwin

And, it is also available on Kindle.

I have a personal collection on books and reading - most are hardbound. But it's very nice to have some of my reading available to take along...and with Amazon's PC program, access from work as well.


It really is a good book. As a librarian who worked in special collections and now archives, I really appreciate Darnton.


The NYT had this a week or so ago. As one who used to program in DOS I enjoy seeing the changes in the generations and the availability of electronic information. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/weekinreview/10stone.html

T Scott

Thanks for the link to the Times article -- I hadn't seen it.

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