May 21, 2002

So what good are libraries these days?

Alex's new card
Alex has a research paper due (today!) so yesterday I took him to the library to do some digging about it. Like most wired kids, he'd just as soon use the web for everything, but his Great Books teacher required the actual reading and referencing of actual paper resources. Though we've been taking him to the local branch library for years, I was surprised to see that the business of going from the online card catalog to finding books in the stacks was still pretty unfamiliar to him. I guess we've been picking out books for him and he's just wandered the stacks picking things out by eye. At 14, he should be ready to make his own way through the library, I think. We filled out the application and now he has his own library card. He wasn't as jazzed about it as I thought he'd be. Instead he (half jokingly) says that I'm just trying to avoid huge fines caused by his losing books checked out on my card.

Silas Bronson Library, Waterbury, ConnecticutI'm mulling this over in contrast to my own library use a generation ago. I walked to the old Silas Bronson Library in Waterbury at least once a week. I had a card from 2nd grade on which limited me to the children's room. From about 5th grade onward I used my Mom's card to check out books from the rest of the building. Getting my own post-kid card was a big milestone. To me, a snowy day spent browsing through the stacks and being able to take home any six I wanted was about as good as it gets.

But our voracious reader son isn't as dependent on libraries as I was. He can look up the answer to any question on the web in seconds. The wonderful thing is that he actually does that routinely. When he hears a term he doesn't know, he hops to dictionary.com or Google at the drop of a hat. Great habit of mind. I couldn't be happier.

But there's something magical about stumbling on a book that someone just left out on a table, a book about something that you would never have looked for deliberately on Google. Will that accidental incidental learning happen less in webspace than in libraries, or even more often? Will the next generation be masters of more snippets of information but have fewer book-length schema to hold them together? I guess we'll find out.

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