If a library doesn’t have books, does it cease to be a library? The coming of BiblioTech, a new
Apple Store computer lab bookless library in San Antonio, the first in the nation, begs the question. It has also brought with it rhetorical musings on whether the future of libraries is already here, and whether the end of those pesky paper books is finally nigh.
Disclaimer: I love technology (sometimes too much) and I’m a library school graduate hoping to work in a library/archive, so I’m far from being a fist-shaking, card-catalog-carrying luddite librarian. But I have grown healthily skeptical of new technologies that come with fantastical declarations of What It All Means. If we’ve learned anything from the very company that BiblioTech models itself after, it’s that the newest available product is the greatest creation in the history of the world — until the slightly-altered updated version comes in a few months. “New device desirable, old device undesirable.”
So when Mary Graham, vice president of South Carolina’s Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, looks at BiblioTech and says, “I told our people that you need to take a look at this. This is the future. … If you’re going to be building new library facilities, this is what you need to be doing,” I can’t help but wonder whether the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and influential civic bodies like it around the country will be building the next truly revolutionary and innovative development in the library & information world, or the next Segway.
What makes me so hesitant to hop on every wave supposedly headed to the bright, beautiful future — waves like the all-digital library or Google Glass or flying cars (there’s still time for that one, DeLorean) — is the air of inevitability usually attached to them. This is the future, so there’s no sense in resisting it. Given historical precedent I understand the reasoning for that argument, but that doesn’t make it any more justified. Michael Sacasas dubbed this inevitability-argument the Borg Complex, a way of thinking “exhibited by writers and pundits who explicitly assert or implicitly assume that resistance to technology is futile.” Some symptoms of the Borg Complex, according to Sacasas:
- Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology
- Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns
- Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia
- Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate
Nicholas Carr, one of my favorite tech writers, quotes Google chairman Eric Schmidt talking about the company’s Glass product: “Our goal is to make the world better. We’ll take the criticism along the way, but criticisms are inevitably from people who are afraid of change or who have not figured out that there will be an adaptation of society to it.” Don’t even try to resist Glass or any new technology, Earthling, for resistance is foolish.
Perhaps BiblioTech (and Google Glass for that matter) is the future. Perhaps physical books are indeed becoming glorified kindling. I highly doubt that, even setting aside my own predilection for them. But I don’t know the future. Our world is becoming more digitized, and libraries in the aggregate are reflecting that reality. Whether we become the wholly digital society BiblioTech is modeling (expecting?) remains to be seen. I’d love to check out the place in person one day, if only to back up my snap judgments with first-hand knowledge. Until then, I’ll be satisfied with libraries that are truly bibliotechy, achieving a healthy balance of physical and digital resources that honor the past, present, and future.
(Image via BiblioTech)