So I was watching a TED talk by a lexicographist recently on my fancy Roku streaming device. (That sentence alienates most of our Pennsylvania Dutch demographic.) It wasn't a great lecture so I won't recommend it with a link, but one interesting thing that she said concerned the loss of serendipity with online media. She was making a strong case for online and open-source dictionaries but acknowledged that something might be lost in the move past bound dictionaries. Have you ever had the experience of flipping through a bound dictionary, looking for a word, and finding a different word that you've never seen before? Serendipity, baby!
I feel the same way about brick and mortar libraries. I can get almost everything I need online these days. I live about an hour from the nearest theological library, so I am quite thankful for this. But I have felt a particular loss of serendipity with my dot com explorations. Case in point: this book caught my eye while I was in the Durham University library once upon a time and it changed my life. (By the way, there is a newer edition of that book out now.) If I had not found the brilliant work of Fentress and Wickham I would have been tempted to mirror my PhD supervisor's contributions to the field. I remember thinking that Dunn's Jesus Remembered (not yet published at the time) was the best book about Jesus I had ever read. I was thrilled to be working with him and lamenting that he had got to the intersection of memory/ historiography/ Jesus first. The work of Fentress and Wickham was a revelation to me and allowed Dunn to become a devil's advocate to my thesis. He's quite good in that role.
I have had serendipitous experiences online too. I've benefited from the whole "Other customers suggested these items" thing on Amazon, but it's not the same. Simply put: there are too many books in circulation. Self-publishing, poor editing, and poorly-vetted books abound. It is impossible to know whether a book is worth purchasing from the "look inside" feature. The brick and mortar experience allows you to take a book out for a date and get to know it a bit better. Does it really enjoy long walks on the beach, or was it just saying so in its online profile? There is just something romantic about the brick and mortar experience.
I'm sure that J.I. Packer holds similar views about the virtue of type-writers over and against computers. While I have Luddite tendencies myself, I'm not suggesting that we try to hold back progress. I'm quite thankful for search engines and spellcehck. But when we lose the majority of our brick and mortar libraries (and this seems inevitable), we will have lost something precious. It's not just the serendipity, and not just the romance. The most precious thing about brick and mortar libraries is that they are monuments to the importance of well-considered ideas. The internet is the wild west right now. It does not resemble the best of our civilization. And while this might appeal to libertarians (for reasons of independence) and Marxists (for reasons of flux), this aspect of cyber-space does not appeal to me. Libraries commemorate civilization in a way that the internet cannot.
Maurice Halbwachs, the father of social memory theory, suggested that a society's chosen topography reflected its identity. Commemorative activity can happen in the world of abstract ideas (for example on the calendar), but it can also happen concretely. Brick and mortar isn't just stuff; the bound book isn't just a media option; such physicalities are identity-shaping commemorations. Shifts in media result in shifts in culture.
I am not saying that traditions must be maintained at all costs, but I will say that seismic shifts like the internet require culture shapers (what might be called remembrancers) to think long and hard about the consequences just around the corner. When I go to a theological library I participate in a cathedral of memory. By participating, I reinforce my membership in a specific culture. It doesn't really matter what sort of book I pick up or which word I find serendipitously. The choice to explore commemorative space is an identity-reinforcing act. When I surf the internet, I am doing something else entirely... and I'm not quite sure what sort of identity I will find for myself. It very well might mean a lack of identity.