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What is Important?

May 3, 2010

I wasn’t going to read it, but friends and colleagues said it’s good, so I’m reading “This book is overdue: How librarians and cybrarians can save us all.”

I had in mind that it would be a librarian’s partly warm-fuzzy, partly indignant declaration of “Aren’t libraries wonderful?” I’ve heard it; didn’t want to hear it again.

I mean, I think public libraries are wonderful, one of the bedrock institutions of a civil and democratic society. Their future utility is threatened less by the electronic information age and more by our society, in particular:

(i) the current trends in digital rights vs. the philosophies behind traditional copyright, and (ii) the rising sentiment against civil institutions of all kind (an emotional, knee-jerk reaction such as causes one to shoot oneself in the foot).

But I digress. I’ve just started “This book is overdue,” so I can’t say much, but I was taken with the chapter “Information Sickness.” The author, who is not a librarian, remembered a futuristic novel from 1981 in which information sickness afflicted some of the characters (“Easy travel to other planets” by Ted Mooney”).

Finding the novel is a good set-up for a variety of issues, but a character named Jeffrey comes upon a crowd gathered around a young woman with a rubber mat rolled up under her arm suffering all the signs of information sickness:

“… bleeding from the nose and ears, vomiting, deliriously disconnected speech, apparent disorientation, and the desire to touch everything.”

“… judging her young enough to warrant hope, he gently takes the rubber mat from the woman, unrolls it upon the pavement, and helps her assume the memory-elimination posture. After a minute, the bleeding stops.

““I was on my way to dance class,” she says to him, still running her ravening fingers over his leather coat sleeves, “when suddenly I was dazzled. I couldn’t tell where one thing left off and the next began.””

I have to find this book. There are so many potentially witty things implied here, I must see if they pan out. But I also love the vision, long before the existence of the World Wide Web and smartphones, of an information-sick society.

We are now data-soaked, with the implication that we must somehow attend to it all. Interestingly enough, the girl in the novel has an experience that is very much an ecstatic one, making her virtually one with the world—the ultimate accomplishment of some spiritual pursuits.

The fact is, our entire lives are full of input without ever touching a computer. But we’ve come to honor the digital information being accumulated every day as some great thing when much of it is mere recording.

It is mostly mundane past experience. One wonders how much of that can we attend to without having to completely abandon the present. But what are libraries full of except the past?

What is important?

Right now, it’s important to know is that the library’s Spring book sale is this Saturday. Whatever the future might be for paper books, plenty of them still come our way.

You can set your hands on solid books, as well as a variety of audio and video recordings, all at the same prices that prevailed in 1989.

Yes, there are ways that time seems to stop in libraries, such as in our local history archive and book prices, and ways in which they are ever new, such as our new webpage and downloadable audiobooks.

Come shop Saturday, 9-5. Donations are still welcome.

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