LIBRARIES AT THE CUTTING EDGE OF THE BORROWING ECONOMY
by Larry Wilson
Every day, or so it seems, I hear someone who has stopped going to the library herself in this online age wonder why libraries even exist anymore. It’s not a new wisecrack. It was several comic ages ago that Jerry Seinfeld on his show picked up a volume in wonder: “A library book? Who reads library books?”
Well, I do. Mostly it’s true that as a problem book-buyer, even without the shelf space for another tome anywhere in the house, I purchase what I read. But I check out library audiobooks all the time, and in the car CD player right now is Faulkner’s “Light in August,” first read in Stan Sheinkopf’s AP English class 43 years ago. (Stan’s question to us young dummies on a character’s name: “Joe Christmas. Now who do you think that might by symbolic of?”) CDs are expensive, and libraries are in what scholar Don Levy, in a talk to the staff of the Pasadena Public Library last week, called “the borrowing economy.”
He used that term to sort of buck up the library workers who are constantly being told their occupation is irrelevant. Far from it, Levy said — libraries were really at the forefront of the same game Netflix is playing. You don’t have to own the thing. In fact, it would just clutter up your bookshelf. You pay a small fee to borrow it, either by subscribing to the online service or by paying the taxes that support our public libraries. These things are cheaper by the dozen. Our always more enlightened neighbors in Canada do the same thing with paintings and prints, according to Pasadena Arts and Culture Commissioner Cybele Garcia-Kohel. The government buys works of art, and loans them to citizens for a time at an affordable rate.
Levy spent 17 years at Sony Pictures Digital, where he was instrumental in the studio’s visual effects. He says we are at a time much like Gutenberg’s. Those who history recalls as great game-changers really built on and synthesized elements already existing. The inventor of moveable type was actually an entrepreneur from a goldsmithing family and a creator of many gadgets. He came up with a devotional device for pilgrims coming to Strasbourg — some kind of mirror to reflect the skies. When that didn’t work out owing to a calendar mistake, his investors asked: “OK, what else you got?” There already were books; the guy who had a background in metalworking suggested interchangeable letters for the big Bible market, and changed the world.
“He applied his maker mind to serve behavior that was already in place,” Levy said. “The challenge for us today is to look at trends in what is already here and see how we can make them better. The first thing we are is storytellers; it’s how we say who we are from generation to generation. That was the difference between us and our predators. ‘Don’t eat this berry,’ for instance. But if all we know are stories, that doesn’t get us to where we want to go. It’s curiosity that moves us forward. We can learn the water hole is dry, but we are still going to be thirsty. We have to look for another source. Our legacy is problem-solving.”
Levy then challenged the librarians to engage with new kinds of visual literacy, especially in how the nascent virtual reality technology will change the ways we experience storytelling: “Find the relevant constant that allows navigators to find their bearing.”
I found mine by heading out to meet Carrie Marsh, director of Special Collections & Libraries at the Claremont Colleges, and CGU prof Lori Anne Ferrell as we plan a show for the 25th anniversary of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize. Scripps’ Dennison Library has a poem in Emily Dickinson’s own hand, for instance. Sure, you can see it online. But I can’t wait to hold it in my own (gloved) one. Thanks to a library.
**Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. firstname.lastname@example.org.