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“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”—Jorge Luis Borges

When the Computer Age arrived, we were promised a paperless society. I can tell you from my experience at NDSU that nothing could less accurate.

Twenty years ago in ARCH 321—first half of the two-term architectural history sequence—I would hand out a syllabus for the semester (goals and objectives for the course, tests and other assessment dates, in-class presentation topics, etc.; if any of you still have one, they’ve got better since then). If they lost it, a replacement was handy, thanks to photocopiers.

Tests were paper-based, in-class encounters (written or, eventually, OpScan) that took ages for me to grade. Sorry about that.

Today, however, on-line PDFs are always available, but we’re all inclined to print it off at each consultation. On-line testing ought to save paper, but I have a suspicion that it doesn’t. Last semester, for example, I looked into the statistical/analytical stuff on BlackBoard and discovered at least one student who had taken the exam seventy-two times—the number of questions—and probably did a screen capture for each question in sequence, because each attempt at taking the exam lasted less that a minute. Frankly I’d rather go back to the old system of thirty minutes and a pencil.


This etching by Erik Desmazieres illustrates Borges’ Library of Babel.

So the Computer Age has, in all likelihood, increased our consumption of paper by at least a factor of four. But here’s the real rub. While the consumption of paper quadruples—at a minimum!—books, periodicals and other paper-based information delivery systems are endangered species. The NDSU Main Library hasn’t bought a book in years and the current periodical list has effectively been cancelled. Libraries are, in fact, divesting themselves of their book collections. I know, because I’ve bid on some of them on eBay. So here’s the question du jour: as the owner-collector of a really fine personal architecture library, I not find myself in need of a place to put it. And please restrain the obvious reply to that opening.

I will live a while longer. Who knows? Five years. Fifteen, maybe. Though many of those years will find my thought processes softer and squishier than usual. I’m not at all sure how much acuity is already lost.

Anybody want a library?

No, I’m not offering my library to anyone who reads this. I want it to do more good than that. But the far larger question concerns the value of libraries themselves as information resources. Is it vanity to hope that younger generations will value those things that have had great meaning for me and mine?

I have no children; no blood relations that I’m even aware. My library and my art collection will be my legacies. So my question to you all is this: Do books have any meaning in the digital age? If they do, where should I deposit mine?

And you can infer from this that it is unlikely to be NDSU.

1 Comment

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