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At the turn of the century a library without books was unthinkable. Now it seems almost inevitable. Like so many other time-honored institutions of intellectual and cultural life—publishing, journalism, and the university, to name a few—the library finds itself on a precipice at the dawn of a digital era. What are libraries for, if not storing and circulating books? With their hearts cut out, how can they survive?
The recent years of austerity have not been kind to the public library. 2012 marked the third consecutive year in which more than 40 percent of states decreased funding for libraries. In 2009, Pennsylvania, the keystone of the old Carnegie library system, came within 15 Senate votes of closing the Free Library of Philadelphia. In the United Kingdom, a much more severe austerity program shuttered 200 public libraries in 2012 alone.
Ours is not the first era to turn its back on libraries. The Roman Empire boasted an informal system of public libraries, stretching from Spain to the Middle East, which declined and disappeared in the early medieval period. In his book Libraries: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles calls such disasters “biblioclasms.”
The most commonly invoked image of biblioclasm is the burning of the Library of Alexandria, probably the greatest-ever collection of Hellenic manuscripts, many of which are now lost to history. In most versions of the story, the arson was committed by early Christian zealots or by invading Arabs under the banner of Islam. Indeed, either group might have seen the burning of the pagan Library as an act of devotion and a net gain for civilization. Just as likely, however, the fire is a myth that obscures a long, slow decline, and the flames that brought down the ancient library were fed not by a single man or group, but by the winds of history—changing reading habits, political instability, and the decline of the administrative state.
Will the digital age mark another era of decline for libraries?