Answering Michael Rosenblum: What IS a Library?

Michael Rosenblum

A fellow named Michael Rosenblum, whom I have never encountered before, has written a Huffington Post essay on libraries and meanders about on the idea that Google has made them obsolete. Mind you, this is not a direct point — indeed his inability to make a direct point or formulate a cohesive argument is abundant proof of his statement that:

Even though I lived right across the street from it [the Donnell Library in New York] for many years, I never went inside. I never sat in its reading room. I never checked out a book. I never explored its stacks to go through old volumes of bound periodicals in some research project.

Rosenblum is, as you will note from the screen capture, a TV guy and perhaps he can be forgiven for his preference for the Internet and indifference toward libraries. The information available on the Web can be illuminating or just a bunch of claptrap the cat dragged in. Not necessarily up to snuff for the conscientious researcher, but perfectly adequate for what I will politely call the less rigorous standards of television.

But in trying to distill Rosenblum’s thoughts, it seems that he doesn’t like libraries as he remembers them from his long-ago college days — nor does he like what they are becoming.

He quotes an article in the New York Times:

It has become more like a cultural space, which is about gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other,” Mr. Norten said. “It’s not really about just being a repository of books.

This, of course, is precisely true in terms of public programming. And speaking historically, the nation’s public libraries have traditionally provided public programming, whether it’s reading groups, lectures, or outside use of their auditoriums and meeting rooms. These days, especially, libraries provide Internet access, literacy programs, instruction in English as a Second Language, art exhibits, photography displays,  and many other functions for the community.

Frankly, it’s perfectly fine with me if Rosenblum never sets foot in a library because it’s one less person in line at the reference desk, or browsing CDs and DVDs, or  waiting for microfilm to be pulled from the stacks.

Notice that I mentioned microfilm. Rosenblum writes:

I can order up pretty much anything I want online, any time I want. Admittedly, the library is free (thank you Benjamin Franklin for that concept), but the web is also free (at least so far), and instant and much much easier to reference and find stuff than in the stacks (though less romantic, in a literary sense).

To which I would make this challenge: Find the complete edition of the Los Angeles Examiner online. Or the Los Angeles Herald-Express. Or the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Or the Los Angeles Daily News. Or a complete run of the Saturday Review of Literature or the American Mercury or Liberty magazine, all prominent, influential magazines in their day that ought to be consulted by anyone studying American history in the last century.

And let me know when you have found complete online transcripts of jury selection in the trial of the McNamara brothers in the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times. Or a complete online edition (not a snippet view) of Morrow Mayo’s “Los Angeles.”

I could go on, but I believe I have made my point. There is no substitute for libraries as brick and mortar institutions. None.

As I noted earlier, Rosenblum’s complaint seems to be that he didn’t like libraries the way he remembers them and doesn’t like what they have become. He asks:

Is this the future of all brick and mortar institutions? Will the New York Times building one day be seen as a place for ‘gathering people’ so that they can ‘encounter one another?’

And he concludes:

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s novel of the dystopian future, (and also an excellent film by Francois Truffaut (1966)), Oskar Werner plays Montag, a ‘fireman’ whose job is to burn books.*

We seem to have bypassed all that nasty burning stuff.

But the result is pretty much the same.

Which means … what? Books are dead  and therefore, libraries, as vast, dark warehouses of books, are also dead?

If that’s what he’s saying, then he is absolutely wrong. Books — and I mean printed books — aren’t dead. If you think your ebook is a satisfactory replacement, try loaning your ecopy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” to a friend or donating your Kindle version of “Gone Girl” to charity.

Nor are libraries dead. They are institutions that have endured budget cutbacks, staff layoffs and reduced hours and they are as crowded as ever.

Current TV

I suppose there will always be those, like Rosenblum, who have no use for libraries — even if their public programs (that would be  “gathering people” who “encounter each other”) feature the host of one of his TV shows. That is their choice and their loss.

In the meantime, you know where to find me: At the library.

*And get an editor. This sentence doesn’t make sense.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in History, Libraries and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Answering Michael Rosenblum: What IS a Library?

  1. Lee Rivas says:

    I read the article and like you I was shocked.

    My earliest memories are of the central downtown library in the early 1950s when we lived up on Bunker Hill (where the Water & Power Building now stands).

    My brother and I treated it as our playground on weekends; and my parents appreciated it as a babysitter.

    The sights, the sounds, the smell. Oh yes, and the books. “So many books, so little time.”

    The magic of that library enthralled my being and guided my life.

    I visited it recently and it’s changed with its computer rooms, CD/DVD rentals, but the core feeling is still there.

    I can only pity Rosenblum for deprecating something he knows almost nothing about.

  2. JAMES says:

    I could almost live inside a library. I have spent entire days from opening to closing inside one.

  3. Stacia says:

    Huh. I’m glad he “can order up pretty much anything I want online, any time” but nearly every day I run into something I simply cannot find online. If I do find something, usually it’s a book that isn’t online except in snippets in Google Books, or MAYBE something you can check out in OpenLibrary. You need libraries when dealing with print material. You just do. Even for stuff that was all online a few months ago; many of my links from just a few months ago no longer work, archive.org never archived the page, and I’m out of luck. This is especially true in the case of celebrities who scrape the web of PR mistakes. I got burned on that more than once, and now take screenshots of webpages when I find them. In a few cases, though, the web article that was edited or deleted was also in print, and if it wasn’t for a library I couldn’t get a copy.

  4. Eve says:

    I feel sorry for that poor mope. I too recall my childhood library–in Bala Cynwyd–it was an old red brick building with actual window seats to curl up in. To this day I love going to my local library and browsing around to see what’s new, what’s old that I missed. I too could easily spend hours in a library.

  5. Carol Gwenn says:

    Right you all are! There’s nothing like the feel of a book in your hand, the library scents around you as you read, the thrill of finding a book you’ve never seen or heard of and paging through it. To those poor sods who’ve denied themselves these pleasures, I say “Go to the library NOW, before the other twerps like you destroy them!”

  6. A.K. Witt says:

    Well, he’ll now never have the chance to see what he missed. The marvelous Donnell research library with it’s amazing video collection including foreign, classics and silents, was dismantled by the NYPL in order to sell the land for yet another hotel. And no one’s mentioned the most valuable library asset: librarians with their amazing knowledge.

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