That Library Feel

Library science is a field in flux, now more than ever. When  I ran into my freshman seminar adviser in a hallway during my last semester of undergrad and she inquired about my post-graduation plans she skeptically warned: “Library science? Well you know you won’t get to work with books, right? Books are on the way out!”

I had been interested in library science for a few years and had read enough to know that, indeed, many library science careers are less and less focused on books as physical objects. One indicator of this shift is the change in name of many institutions and degrees. Most schools now offer a degree in Library and Information Science. Some even opt for just a Master’s in Information Science. Hence, librarians have become more than just keepers of books; we are now facilitators of learning, teachers of information-parsing, and agents of social change and awareness.

I am very excited for these changes in what it means to be a librarian. One of my favorite classes so far was Digital Humanities, taught by John Unsworth. I wholeheartedly believe that the future of librarians, libraries, and institutions of learning and cultural heritage resides in providing digital access to print sources, facilitating access to born-digital sources, and creating digital tools to analyze and interpret sources in news ways.

That being said, I, like many library science students, am still a sucker for the wonder and romance of the written, printed word. In a recent New York Times article, Ben Ratliff articulately describes the unparalleled physical experience of walking through a great library: “All that organization and nobody around — it seemed like trespassing in the history of Western learning, with no fear of cops. Not a lot of people spend time in the stacks anymore. It’s not the current nature of finding information. Doing it the inefficient way, you use the senses. You look at a row of spines, imprinted with butch, ultra-legible white or black type; your eye takes in more at any time than can be contained on a computer screen. You hold the books in your hand and feel the weight and size; the typography and the paper talk to you about time. A lot of libraries smell nice, but the smell of the Butler stacks is a song of organic matter, changing as temperatures do through the reaches of a pond. Get yourself near Goffredo Casalis’s life’s work on the duchy of Savoy, the Dizionario Geografico-Storico-Statistico-Commerciale, published in 27 volumes from 1833 to 1854, and breathe in. A fantastic, pre-acidic-paper smell: burned caramel, basically. Nobody there but you.”

My seminar adviser was, in many ways, very correct. Unless you want to be a rare books librarian (and you somehow already have a job waiting for you), you should probably not apply to graduate school in Library Science just because you love books. Being a librarian is no longer just about the books. However, regardless of how popular ebooks become, how ubiquitous online searching is, or how many archival documents are digitized and available online, many of us will still be utterly captivated by the tactile and aromatic pleasures of physical library stacks.


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