Steam engine

NOTE: DB problems will lock me out of the server for two days, so this is written today but posted from the future. Will explain when that future arrives.

Today I attended a fascinating lecture by my old friend Debbie Deas about her recent visit to the New Library of Alexandria. As you undoubtedly know, the city of Alexandria, Egypt has the best library brand in history. The magnificent new library was opened in 2002 to celebrate that vision and bring it into the 21st century.

The photos Debbie took showed a huge number of young people from a nearby university crowding into the library’s beautiful space, taking up every available seat and study table. They were working alone or in small groups on their scholarly research under soaring ceilings, by the reader-friendly diffuse natural light that filled this magnificent building. An architect who attended the talk explained to me afterward that high ceilings and large windows are a desired feature of libraries partly because they create the ideal lighting conditions for reading.

But also, we tend to see high ceilings in places that connote honor or respect — such as court houses, churches, museums. And libraries, for a library is a place of pride and honor.

I also noticed the stacks of books, but the stacks were only partially filled. I had always associated the large vaulting spaces of libraries with the need to house stacks of books (which, after all, take up a lot of room). But here, if the photos were any guide, a transition was going on. Many of the students were using computers. They were surrounded by stacks of books but their own studies were drawn largely from the 3.5 petabytes of on-line storage the library provides.

And I was reminded of the steam engine. The magnificent old early locomotive (which I still love) with its gleaming boiler and towering smokebox, was an icon of the Victorian era — a perfect image of a particular kind of physical technology. Much more interesting to me than those sleek but featureless trains of the last seventy years, with their boring little diesel engines inside.

Similarly, the book is the very symbol of learning and erudition. But I wonder, looking at those students in the New Library of Alexandria, whether this symbol will slowly fade like the steam engine. With the rise of eBooks and tablets, we might very well be witnessing the beginning of the end of what might be called the Victorian phase of the information age.

Yet the libraries will remain. For the library is not primarily, as we might have thought, merely a place to house stacks of books. A library is fundamentally a sacred and quiet church of the mind, under whose lofted ceilings people will always gather to study, to learn, and to honor the magnificent possibilities of human thought.

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