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   Volume III, Issue 3
February 2007   

Libraries & Books: Reframing the Picture

Director's Watch

by Joe Lucia

The ‘Library’ brand is dominant in one category – books. It would be delightful to assume that when [people] say ‘books,’ what they really mean to say is that books, in essence, stand for those intangible qualities of information familiarity, information trust and information quality. The data did not reveal it.(1)

This statement, from a recent study by  OCLC, a global library service cooperative, reveals the opinion of “information consumers” in the contemporary English-speaking world.

Librarians find this particular conclusion both comforting and alarming. Comfort comes from our profession’s long allegiance to the book as an entity and to book culture as the richest embodiment of intellectual and imaginative discourse our species has yet produced. Alarm results from a growing sense that the hegemony of print culture is attenuating rapidly, if it has not already receded entirely, and that the place of an institution exclusively associated with the fate of the book – no matter how noble, robust or longstanding – will face inevitable decline as books become less central to human discourse.

I am personally resistant to doomsday scenarios when it comes to the future of libraries. Of course, I wonder what the legacy of the book will be as we move deeper into digital culture. But, as I have thought about this question more and more in recent months, I have come to a conclusion that runs counter to the findings of the OCLC study.

I am increasingly convinced that “the book” is more than a physical entity. It is a cultural frame, in many respects what Richard Dawkins calls a “meme” or even a “meme complex”:

The term "meme,” coined in 1976 by the zoologist and evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins, refers to a unit of cultural information transferable from one mind to another. Dawkins said, “Examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” A meme propagates itself as a unit of cultural evolution and diffusion — analogous in many ways to the behavior of the gene (the unit of genetic information).(2)

As I reflect on the purposes and functions of libraries in the broadest context of their cultural and social commitments, this “meme” aspect of the book leads to a powerful and promising conclusion – that books are symbolic entities as much as they are physical ones, embodying key cultural values and practices related to ideas and discourse.

Books are, in effect, experiential frames around literate immersion in narrative and argument. In this sense, the fate of libraries is tied at some level to the fate of discourse and its social contexts. A recent white paper by R. David Lankes and Joanne Silverstein puts it this way:

Knowledge is created through conversation. Libraries are in the knowledge business. Therefore, libraries are in the conversation business. Some of those conversations span millennia. Others only a few seconds… Some of these conversations are as trivial as directing someone to the bathroom. Other conversations center on the foundation of ourselves and our humanity.(3)

Too often in recent years we in the library world have confused our purpose with the purposes of the “information industry,” perhaps now most fully symbolized by Google and all it does. But libraries are only secondarily about information. At their core, libraries are about connecting people with ideas through a variety of means.

Librarians and the institutions they manage have worried too much about techniques, tools and methods (catalogs, databases, classification schemes, search engines, etc.) and not enough about the excitement and social vitality of settings in which knowledge is discovered and created. Librarians are more than technocrats. We will not build the future of libraries around narrowly-defined “information services.”

Libraries as environments are in effect sacred spaces devoted to the life of the mind and the imagination. We must focus our attention on this dimension of the library as a unique social space and as a central social institution, in its physical as in its digital manifestations, as we plan for the future.That is the challenge of our transformational epoch. In the next issue of this column I will describe some of the ways libraries are answering that challenge.  

Joe Lucia is University Librarian and director of Falvey Memorial Library.


1. Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources; A Report to the OCLC Membership (OCLC, 2006), 6-7.
2. Wikipedia, entry on Memes, February 9, 2007.
3. “Participatory Networks: The Library as Conversation,” public draft (September 21, 2006), produced for the American Library Association, Office for Information Technology Policy, Information Institute of Syracuse, Syracuse University's School of Information Studies.