Lessons from the Library

When I was a kid, there was a Saturday ritual that happened pretty much every weekend. After the requisite and mindless Saturday morning cartoons had been watched, it was time for the weekly shopping trip downtown. I’d always tag along with my parents as they went to get whatever it is that parents need to get on the one day the stores were open and they didn’t have to work. I was never much interested in the shopping, what I really liked was being dropped off on the front steps of the old Carnegie Library, where I’d go in and explore and browse for as long as it took my parents to finish their list. It was great to roam the stacks and look for books on whatever my latest passion was, sometimes discovering books on completely different subjects in the ultimate organic and lateral search.

As I got older I realized that you could get a snapshot of the whole library with “curated” selections from every section by just browsing the Returns cart. They were the books that somebody else had just had out, so there was a better chance that they might be good or relevant or interesting. Sometimes aimless browsing wasn’t good enough, so it was time to hit the card catalogue, with all its drawers full of typed cards. Due to the vagaries of the Dewey Decimal System, it was possible to uncover books on a given topic filed under radically different numbers. What a bonus to find a previously unknown trove of books on a subject filed in an unexpected place.

If you think all of this sounds a lot like what we all do now on the Internet every day, I’d say you’re both right and wrong. There’s no doubt that the ubiquitous Google search delivers up very finely targeted information on any keyword combination I can dream up, and once I dig through the first few pages of keyword-stuffed contentless crap, I can generally find something relevant, even if it wasn’t always exactly what I was looking for. If I want the serendipity of browsing rather than searching, it’s true that services like Reddit and Stumbleupon can deliver a version of that, but I still find it lacking somehow.

I think what I miss most is the very direct experience of making those serendipitous discoveries and connections in such a tactile, physical way. The physicality contributes an indefinable something that leads to a richer and more memorable experience. The textures of the bindings and pages, the heft of a particularly authoritative tome, and even the musty smell of a book that hasn’t shared its secrets in a very long time, they all contribute something to the experience. It’s those things that are missing when we interact with pixels instead of things.

The places that continue to provide that kind of tactile, multi-sensory learning experience best these days are museums. Museums are still places where you can browse instead of search, and learn about things that you never even knew you were interested in. That’s what makes them challenging and interesting places to design for, and why I really enjoy having the chance to do that. Technology is definitely invading the world of museums, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a real positive when used appropriately as a way to provide deeper information, in multiple media, or to promote engagement through participation. I just think we have to keep in mind that the museum is a special place, and like the Library of my youth, can provide a rich visitor experience on its own merits. We need to be cognizant of finding the right balance so that anything we add does not take away from something else important.

You know, there’s one last thing that my old Library has in common with the Internet, and it’s something that I’ve never encountered in a Museum — the equivalent of those old guys who sat in the basement of the library all day “reading” the newspapers on those big sticks with their eyes closed, wearing too many clothes, in need of a shave and smelling vaguely of urine. Yup, the Internet definitely has a good supply of them.

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Comments (4)

    Very insightful post; a great read! I too enjoy wandering the library stacks and enjoying the feeling when I come across a hidden gem I would never have encountered otherwise. True, a lot of online tools can replicate this in various ways, but it will never provide the same feeling. I just wonder if the next generation will feel the same way.

    Thanks for your kind words Joseph. It seems like a lot of young children are still being brought to libraries and getting to experience browsing the board books in a very tactile way. The challenge is to keep them coming back as they get older, for sure. Somehow we have to show them that there are other ways to learn about things than simply “googling” them, whether those ways be libraries, museums or something else entirely.

  • […] already outed myself in the past as a great believer in the value of libraries and the serendipity they can facilitate, so I was […]

  • […] I’m taking the week off from just about everything, but thought I’d offer up something from the archives that you might enjoy if you missed it the first time around — Lessons From the Library […]

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