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The Vanishing Art of Browsing

In talking to my mom – a retired elementary school librarian – recently, she mentioned a friend of hers – a non-retired school librarian – who was upset that the school she works for is planning to shrink the library by getting rid of the majority of print books and focusing mainly on digital.

This is heartbreaking. It’s not just that I’m older and not willing to acknowledge the ebook revolution – in fact, I make a nice chunk of change from ebook sales. The reason I think this is a terrible idea is that it takes away a very fundamental way for us to discover new things. It greatly limits our ability to browse.

Browsing is one of the best ways to discover new things; new authors, new subjects, new artists, new musicians. In the last decade or so, targeted marketing has been on the march to replace browsing. Targeted marketing is the opposite of browsing. Targeted marketing says, ‘Oh, so you like horror. Well here are some horror novels similar to the ones you already read, so you’ll probably like these, too.’ Old-fashioned browsing says, ‘Hey there – here’s the horror section, but when you’re done looking here, keep sauntering through the aisles and you might find something you didn’t know about, and who knows? You just might find another passion or three.’ Browsing in real, physical space gives you a 360-degree view of what else is out there, while cyber-browsing gives you tunnel vision.

Our computers, smart phones, tablets, can track our internet traffic and use that to determine our interests. That’s all fine and good and makes a lot of sense from a commercial point of view. I’ve got nothing against it...as long as there is still a way for us to discover things we didn’t know we’d like. Sure, you can discover things on the internet. You can spend time going down the Wiki-hole, where one search leads to another search, leads to another search, leads to another until the next thing you know there’s a crust of drool on your chin and your kids are nourishing themselves by chewing on the leather of your boots. But still...

Real browsing involves all of your senses. It’s active. It’s tactile.

Internet browsing is mostly passive. You move your fingers a little, and stuff appears in the narrow field of vision that is your screen.

Libraries – real libraries – need to be filled with real books. They need to be there in the stacks so that we can walk slowly through the aisles, running our fingers along the spines, gazing at the possibilities, all the endless possibilities of adventure, love, intrigue, laughter... Sometimes our bodies, our souls, yearn to be surrounded by books, yearn to breathe in the knowledge, the wisdom oozing from the between shelf upon shelf of colorful, enticing covers. We need a place where everywhere we turn there are books, books, books!

There can never be an app for that.

So please libraries...yes, add digital, but don’t use it to replace the physical. Because if someday all the power shuts down and the last bit of juice is drained from the last Nook and Kindle, there will still be the fortresses of libraries to protect us from ignorance and boredom.

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