The new Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is superb: ten years work to renovate, refresh and rehang the galleries, resulting in a beautiful setting and interpretation of some of the finest artworks in the world. And a great library. My highlight yesterday wasn’t seeing the Night Watch hanging in pride of place, nor the collection of Asian art or Dutch impressionists. No, my highlight was venturing out onto the gallery in the library, looking down and seeing a young girl, maybe nine or ten years old, poring over a giant book with her mother, excitedly pointing and chatting at a hundred miles an hour. Discovering, exploring, curious: learning.
We connect with information in many ways: through people, through books, through technology, but the library is not redundant. Through all these sources of knowledge, there are nodes, be they resource sites online, subject matter experts or physical collections, places where knowledge is gathered, sorted, curated, collected and made available to share.
Just as books are no longer merely paper, so too libraries are no longer simply buildings. A library is a place to access the physical resource, but also to access the enhanced content and communities that surround it. So a library is a facilitating space, much as my iPad is a facilitating technology, giving me access to knowledge.
Whilst books may evolve, and libraries redefine themselves, whilst the internet and shifts in publishing may democratise the space that knowledge is curated in, there will always be value in places that we go to learn, to be inspired, to gaze around us in wonder at the collected wisdom of humanity.
We can view the knowledge ecosystem as a space inhabited by collected writings, people’s considered view of the world. These are like grains of sand, to many to count, but surrounded by the waters of discussion and community, the ebbs and flow of the tide where meaning is created by the group. When you write a book, you are narrating your one truth about the world: when you go into the community that surrounds that book and have discussions, you are co creating shared narratives, based upon the original knowledge and interpretation alongside the experience and creativity of the group. The collected whole is so much more than the parts.
Maybe that young girl was setting out on her own journey: sat in the library, discovering, creating meaning with her mother, maybe sharing that wisdom today back in school. The library was integral to that experience, the experience of being surrounded by books, stacked several stories high, a gravitas you simply don’t get from the internet or technology.
In some ways, libraries have always been cathedrals to knowledge, and indeed server farms can take on this connotation too: if you go to certain sites their servers are reverentially laid out in silent rows, dimly lit, revered and tended to. We value knowledge in whatever form it is stored, but there will always be meaning in spaces where we can go to do this, to browse. Social learning spaces, online communities simply make it easier to gather, to share, to have those discussions. Technology is revolutionising our relationship with books, but it’s not replacing it. There is space for everything. It just evolves, but you’ll never replace that feeling of pulling a book from the shelf and watching it fall open, revealing it’s secrets to you for the first time.