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Books, buildings, bytes

The Internet still in the womb of the mother, as a graduate student in the United States in the eighties, I was seduced and captured by the breath of the campus library and by the universal feeling that could be sensed wandering through its orderly arranged shelves, five storeys of silent, open and organized space in which my mind seemed to find peace. The quality of that wonderful place was further enhanced by the green meadows in which it stood, trees all round and by the walks joining the library to the other buildings, paths between different fields, physically and metaphorically. And colorful young people all over, gracefully sitting or walking in their busy quest for life. What a memory. What a powerful blend of objects, spaces, people.

The Internet by that stage in full gear, I went back to that very same library years later, fearing disillusion and perhaps drastic and disorienting changes. Much to my delight, it had not changed at all, apart from the many PC facilities to which many students of the year 2000 could log-on and be connected. But many other students were actually reading books in natural silence. Silence — I was lead to think — is an enduring value in the creation of thought, the texture of perception, the canvas of all mental paintings. It is the means through which our creativity travels. We need it, either indoors or in wide open space, to the point that we have even managed to learn how to fabricate it when is not available by devising noise-canceling headphones.

It is perhaps of no great surprise that, yet another few years down the line, I ended up accepting to be part of the group of colleagues responsible for our Mathematics library, handling acquisition policies, journal subscriptions and so on. Rather soon, though, my passion for books started to clash with the disturbing feeling that the way in which our collection was kept, used and expanded daily was not what it should have been, that the ties between those glorious volumes and the community were sadly loosening and slowly being replaced by eyebrow raisings, eluding excuses, growing disaffection. Professors and students had gradually stopped going to the library. Why? The challenge, I believed, was not just working for a more efficient organization, better opening times, faster procedures for retrieving material or richer collections. Nor was I satisfied with explaining this phenomenon with the mere insurgence of electronic journals, though clearly this was — still is — one of the main reasons. I convinced myself that it was — it is — a matter of an increasingly large mismatch between what people need, want or look for and what the structure offers. In short a contradiction that calls for a necessary, thorough, deep and ruthless analysis of what libraries should really be like. Plural because many kinds do and must exist, in spite of the fact that there seem to be too many obsolete ones.

Similarly, I reckoned, the several thousand Catholic churches around Italy (perhaps the world) seem to have faced an analogous fate: they largely outnumber the demand. Some or most of the elementary needs to which they were able to provide satisfactory answers have found solutions that better suit contemporary crowds. Apart from Sunday service, weddings, funerals, christenings, baptisms, confirmations, rosaries and other religious ceremonies, necessities like finding shelter from the cold in the winter and heat in the summer, silence in all seasons, a place to sleep and solid walls against fire, flood or enemies, these necessities are outdated in many ways, though perhaps not everywhere in the world. However, gathering and speaking as acknowledgments of being part of a community in a recognizable way seem, on the contrary, to be rather persistent pursuits.

Poetry, science, political and religious visions have been printed in books which are kept in buildings that we call libraries. Libraries are places where we go to find mental time, silence, information and inspiration, surrounded by the most convincing evidence of human intellectual activity: books of all possible kinds and people that read them. Roughly thirty years ago the tangible nature of a paper page was paired with the less tangible concept of bit, but the home of bytes is yet to be built. Arguably, it is the world, where no walls need to be erected to protect them from fire because they do not burn.

There seems to be a diverging point in the history of reading, a moment in time in which its very physics has shrunk from a three dimensional activity – a book has a paradigmatically 3D shape and is even called a volume – to a barely two dimensional swiping of fingers on a flat glassy surface, whereby we actually activate a string of data that is not even one dimensional, rather a finite, albeit long, sequence of bits. By the same token, writing has acquired an infinitely wide space for constant modification, correction, annotation, all of which is not stored in 3D wooden cabinets but abstractly recorded as zeros and ones.

Does all of this create a conflict? An abrupt crack in history? Does it mean that we must give up books and libraries? Should they be looked upon as smiling and wrinkled great-grandparents of newborn babes that communicate at the speed of light and have increasingly complex interconnectivity skills? Are books to files as are horses to cars or airplanes?

A major breakthrough has certainly taken place; it would be silly and blind to ignore it. Yet a strong thread links these seemingly irreconcilable ways of transmitting ideas and has to do with the fact that we humans do need space to define our activities, to move about, to speak. And, above all, to meet. The history of civilization can be told by buildings, by tracing the graph that connects caves, huts, temples, churches, theatres, schools, condominiums, skyscrapers. The very same graph tells the story of how ideas have been carved in rock, whispered in a tribe, recited in public, written on paper, printed, typed, faxed, texted.

Maybe the scattered dots and edges that I have tried to sketch could be a first reasonable conceptual landscape in which we may try to reorganize our ideas in order to face what seems to be an unavoidable problem: Europe — and perhaps the whole world — is the home of several thousand libraries that uncountably host many cubic meters of printed paper, which is daily produced and stored. Books, journals, documents. Much of this paper will never be read, some is of immense value, and some is of immense value and will never be read. A large proportion of it lies in old or ancient buildings in precarious or inadequate conditions, sometimes the reading habits and needs of the past generations are not congenial to those of the young ones, and oft-times the actual bibliographic patrimony is simply not properly taken care of and it ends up being essentially wasted. Perhaps some segment of this huge mass of material should not be printed at all. In all cases, the question of the future of libraries is a sensible question to ask.

Apart from the several and important issues of flexibility, safety and function, involving everything from the expectation of users to the resources and services that a library may offer, one more fundamental question keeps bouncing in my mind. Is there a reasonable way to transform libraries into places that fulfil the needs of the third millennium, places where people go, meet, exchange information, explore? Places where thinking is coupled with learning, where silence is available and yet contiguous to talking, places where all the activities that are somehow amenable to books are organized in a systemic way? In short, is there a long-term model that can stand the test of time for diverse intellectual needs?

I do not have a full answer, perhaps some ideas. Just like everybody else, though, I witness that new needs and ancient feelings are emerging in the era of electronic files, and that our future understanding of information, the very way in which we produce, exchange and use intelligence is intertwined with the fate of books. What we think and what we do depend on how we learn and how we meet.

Babylon with its tower, the myriad languages that sprang out of it, the dream of a united human race, the myths that may be traced back to it have left a thread, a spider web that is daily woven by the constant creation of documents of all possible kinds: texts, images, sounds. The explosive impact of electronic files on the production, conservation and exchange of intelligence calls for a thorough analysis that goes beyond any predefined boundaries. It is time to sail the waves that the digital world has produced in the stormy sea of knowledge.

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