Monday, February 15, 2010

Is there Kindle in heaven?

A debate among educators on the New York Times website about whether it's time to get rid of the books in school libraries. It seems in the age of Google and Kindle, the libraries are used less and less. And they are expensive to maintain in a time of tight budgets.

College and university libraries are having the same debate. So far, my own college library hasn't given up on books, but it's the rare student who grazes the stacks where I hang out. Of course, the computer terminals downstairs are fully occupied -- mostly, it seems, by students checking Facebook.

When I started teaching, the college bookstore offered a prize gift-certificate each year to the student who possessed the best personal library on some subject of interest. Those were the days of Steppenwolf, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, On the Road, The Teachings of Don Juan, and other undergraduate classics. Students even read poetry, if you include the likes of Khalil Gibran and e. e. cummings. Not any more (said the old curmugeon). I doubt if there's a student at the college who owns a book you couldn't buy in the local supermarket.

Ah, well. Maybe it's just as well for the libraries to heave the books.

But my whole life has been spent blissfully in libraries, and when I die there will be a pile of real, honest-to-god paper books by my bedside waiting to be read.

Here on the island, my wife volunteers in the high school library. It's a sweet little one-room prefab, with a lovely librarian who has so many other responsibilities she appreciates M's help. Most of the books are donations and range from the sublime to the useless. I build bookshelves as more come in. The older students don't read much, if at all, but the junior-high kids are voracious, especially for the likes of Harry Potter. And the library is there to serve them. Here, at least, books have a tenuous hold on continued existence.

As for the island itself, here is our little public library in Georgetown, under the fig tree across from the straw market. It is only open a few hours each day, staffed by volunteers, and its books too are all donations, many from the boaters who visit the harbor. A mixed bag -- shelves and shelves of supermarket stuff, but some gems too, and after fifteen years I've read my way through most of them. I like to think that one day when all the high school and college libraries have closed, and the big public libraries have digitized their collections and gone out of business, this charming little building will be the world's last holdout for real books.

If the termites don't get them first.