Krysta and I write a lot about libraries on the blog, and Krysta specifically makes a point of mentioning all the resources that libraries can offer in addition to actual books—movies, video games, online resources, computer access, classes, baking pans or even bikes. (Disclaimer: We discuss primarily US libraries since both of us live in the US, and of course resources vary from library to library within the US.) Most of our readers seem to be aware that today’s public libraries are often more about being general community spaces than being specifically/only about books, but I wonder sometimes if our internal vision/imagination about libraries doesn’t match that reality.
Libraries: Fantasy vs. Reality
I read a lot of fantasy, and libraries in fantasy books tend to be vast halls of obscure knowledge where the very learned hang out, study arcane topics, and routinely discover knowledge that has been overlooked or forgotten for decades or even centuries. Basically, people (in fantasy books, at least) seem to have the idea that a library is a place that preserves knowledge and where people can go to learn anything.
We think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings going to the records room of Minas Tirith and finding a scroll about the One Ring that even the lore masters of the city had been unaware of. Or Lazlo in Strange the Dreamer putting together his research on half-forgotten topics as he roams the halls of the world’s biggest library. Or Jasnah from The Stormlight Archives combing through half-forgotten texts and publishing her shocking findings.
Exceptions to the image of a scholar going to a large library (often THE library in the fantasy) world generally include fantasy school books where there is a school library (such as Harry Potter or Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books). I can’t think of an example of a fantasy book off-hand that features a general interest library that the public frequents. In general, fantasy imagines libraries as spaces where the learned go to do PhD level research on specialized topics, often in half-forgotten languages. In these books, libraries house the entire knowledge and history of the world, and anything can be found by someone who looks hard enough.
In reality, that often isn’t a good reflection of what libraries offer.
The stated mission of my current public library is to provide “high interest” materials to the community. So you can go to find The Hunger Games or Hillary Clinton’s book or something about Neptune or a book on the latest fad diet. But if you want a book on an extremely specialized or obscure topic, it likely isn’t there. And forget old books. Public libraries tend to have limited room. If a book hasn’t been checked out by a patron in a few years, that indicates “lack of interest,” and it gets weeded (maybe recycled, maybe donated, maybe sold off at the library book sale—it depends).
University/academic libraries are much more likely to have obscure books and old ones that are no longer readily available, and you should be able to find just about anything you want in the Library of Congress (barring actual original manuscripts from, say, Ancient Greece)—but most people haven’t been in an academic library since graduating college (You can often pay for a library membership at universities, though, if you are interested). So I find it a bit funny that our shared imagination of what a library is often is based on the type of library that few of us even visit. (And note that our image of a library focuses heavily on nonfiction!)
Libraries have different missions, and I’m not saying that one is more valuable than another here. However, I want to know: When you hear the word “library,” what do you envision? A huge old hall holding miles of half-forgotten knowledge? Or do you actually think of something that more closely resembles your own local library?
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