Casual and thoughtful speakers alike frequently use “library” as though it were the collective noun for “book”: A herd of cows, a murder of crows, a library of books. In practice it matters little whether “book” is understood as a specific physical artifact of ink and paper, or whether it refers more generically to any information-containing entity. The consistent point appears to be that in the presence of a sufficient number of those items, a library necessarily rises into existence.

This implied relationship proves critical to debates over the implications of digital formats for libraries. If libraries are reducible to their books (however understood), then a fundamental change in books requires a similarly radical reaction from libraries. In that view, to the extent traditional books themselves are an endangered medium, then so too must be libraries, given that they are mere “warehouses” of books. To resist such inevitable changes not only betokens an unhealthy conservatism, but worse, an irrational denial of the fundamental relationship between books and libraries.

This article, however, offers three independent demonstrations that libraries cannot be reduced to their books. The library is not an additive category, but rather an emergent concept greater than the sum of its parts. Books may typically and traditionally serve as building blocks for libraries, but the presence of books of any definition is not sufficient for something to be recognized as a “library.”

Breaking this link raises serious consequences for the format debates. If physical books do not make the library, then less so can digital books. The challenge will then shift to identify what must be present to create a library other than information-containing entities, and then to inquire whether these additional qualities can be achieved in the digital environment. The “digital library,” in other words, remains to be proved as an intelligible idea, whatever its technological possibility. The conclusion offered here is that such alchemy is not impossible, but highly unlikely.

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Publication Date

January 2012