Libraries can’t escape the push for digitization, but we still need actual books on shelves

Andrew Stauffer:

In “Church Going”—Philip Larkin’s 1955 poem on the fade-out of religious faith in the modern world—the narrator wonders why, despite his own apathy and ignorance, he keeps visiting churches. Bicycling on Sunday afternoons, he finds himself “tending to this cross of ground,” even as he recognizes they no longer have the power to hold “unspilt . . . what since is found / Only in separation.” Looking forward, he wonders “when churches will fall completely out of use / What we shall turn them into,” imagining most of them slowly crumbling to ruin amid rain and sheep, with only “a few cathedrals” kept “chronically on show.” The poem ends as he tries to foresee “who / Will be the last, the very last,” to seek a church “for what it was,” the final representative of beliefs wedded to practices within “the special shell” created to house them.

Larkin’s poem has been coming to mind lately as I visit libraries, and I’ve begun to wonder to what extent my interactions with them and their contents are becoming anomalous, a twilit posture. Many institutions have moved, or are on the verge of moving, significant portions of their collections off-site. Some are embarking on large-scale book de-accessioning projects, a process by which books are removed permanently from a collection. Across North America, academic library buildings themselves are being reconfigured as “information hubs” and “learning spaces.” 

Going forward, what will be the claim of printed materials on our resources, our scholarship, and our imaginations?