Libraries, physical and digital, visible and invisible

Hit and Miss #72

I love libraries and what we can learn from them—from their contents, yes, but also from the ideas and activities that their form enables.

Libraries offer us past paths not chosen, nuanced understandings of the present, and potential futures. Seeing a book can open our minds: the joy of browsing comes precisely from the chance discovery or rediscovery, from our being pushed into a work that we wouldn’t have thought of of our own accord.

This is true of physical libraries, like that of my local public library, of my university, or of my own apartment. (It’s also true of bookstores.) Does it hold up for digital libraries? In principle, a digital library shares the potential of its physical predecessor. But in practice, it falls short.

What distinguishes a physical library from a digital one? In the former, each item in the collection has a physical presence—it is visible. In the latter, no item has a physical presence—each is invisible until summoned by the digital system.

Certainly the digital library has its advantages: it can be ordered and reordered with relatively little effort through algorithm-powered search or human curation; in terms of its contents, it can store immense amounts of information in a microscopic physical space; these contents can be easily shared, duplicated and distributed via the internet. Furthermore, the magic of the hyperlink enables us to browse the web—though it’s different from browsing a physical library, where you can better step back and survey the works you’re exploring, browsing the web is a magical experience of its own.

But I think the invisibility of digital files, their lack of physical presence, removes from digital libraries the essential quality that makes physical ones so wonderful. It’s much harder to browse a digital library—whether of books, of music, of movies, or so on—than it is a physical one. The unintentional broadening of the mind, the accidental discovery of the adjacent idea—these are harder to accomplish with a digital library, usually searched rather than browsed.

Now, I’m a fan of digital libraries, despite this shortcoming. Perhaps a digital library could offer the benefits of physicality through a better interface and a more intentional approach to browsing from the user. I’ve gone the other way at times, making physical objects to represent the digital music and movies I most care about, to include them in my physical library.

Herein, though, lies the magic of the physical library: you don’t need to try to browse, or to create the optimal conditions for browsing; rather, it’s the activity that flows naturally from the structure’s form.

Something to chew on. All the best for the week ahead!