Have we killed the public library superstar?

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Hard to believe now but there was once such a thing as the public library superstar. Some of the great figures of history (Dickens, Wilde, Gandhi, to name a few) notably took advantage of long periods of reading time and resources that public libraries afforded all people. One extreme example was Karl Marx, who famously sat himself at the O7 desk at the British Library every day for years, as he read history books and wrote Das Kapital.

In an age of ideas – where a new business or creative enterprise can literally be created out of nothing but information – I find it a little odd that there are no modern day success stories involving creativity and ones local public library. Then again, sit in a library and try to create something – and you might see why this is (hint: it’s not the library’s fault).

It’s not because of a lack of internet (almost all of them have free internet access), or the fact that libraries are stocked with books rather than iPads. It’s not even because a certain class of person is scaring the creative classes away.

It’s because we are not comfortable with deep reading anymore. Even in Marx’s old haunt – the British Library – people can often be found multitasking between Twitter and the book they’re reading – or even flitting between different books. Many a novelist has decried the increasing repetitiveness of the modern novel. The repetitiveness is not there because we’ve grown dumber, but because our reading habits have changed and we’re reading said novel on the train for 20 minutes and continuing it in bed on our iPads for another 20. Novels need to be repetitive because we’re consuming them in smaller doses and so need to be continually reminded of plot points.

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Along with that, the kind of ideas valued by society have changed. Sitting in a library closed off from the whole world used to be the way to come up with ideas. Today’s ideas, however, are very much spurred on by us getting distracted by the people passing by the window. Sure, there’s still the internet – which allows you to connect with people even while you’re at your local library – but then again there’s internet at your local cafe too. All the internet has done is meant you’re able to access an international library from your cafe as well as the library itself.

Karl Marx was a theoretician who constructed his ideas in the abstract. His ideas might have been based on his observations of history – through his deep-reading of historical texts – but they were not based on his observations of the guy sitting two rows in front of him who sniffled a lot. Zuckerberg – allegedly – constructed his idea for Facebook off of his own dating woes mixed with how his friends reacted to the idea of ‘rating’ peoples pictures. Marx’s ideas were valued and valuable because they were an abstract ideal, but the valued ideas of today’s thinkers and creators are more grounded in reality and/or the behaviour of people they’ve observed. If Steve Jobs had been in Marx’s position it’s likely he’d have been more focused on the guy with the sniffles than focused on delving deeply into history – whilst in seclusion for days on end – in order to find some ultimate truth. Even the person who is today accused of being Karl Marx 2.0 (Thomas Pilketty) grounds his egalitarian vision in a statistical – rather than a theoretical – reality.

In other words, theorists like Marx (or indeed people of deep contemplation like Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Gandhi) aren’t really our heroes anymore. Our new heroes of ideas are Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and while it may be possible to imagine them reading a book, it is almost impossible to picture them sitting still in a public library. Jobs’ prefer method of solitary thinking was to walk for long periods outside and Zuckerberg presumably spent most of his time overstimulated by a computer. Even authors like JK Rowling don’t seem to have spent – or had time to spend – particularly long stretches of time at their local public library other than in their youth (Rowling is famous for having written her first Harry Potter book at a cafe).

And so the public library superstar seems to have been replaced by the kind of person writing a book/screenplay or running his/her internet business over several latte’s at the local cafe. That local cafe has plenty of distractions, including music, wi-fi, and food – all of which, I suspect, would have annoyed and distracted Karl Marx to no end. Then again, maybe that’s just what it takes to create an environment for good ideas these days.

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