The Known and Unknown

Stacks at Exeter Library

What is it that makes that “library” atmosphere?

There’s a sense of the simultaneously existing known and unknown that is created by a profusion of books in a library. At one and the same time you are presented with that which is known to humanity—it has been researched, worried over, and published—and your own awareness of unknowing—no matter how much time you spend in the library, you will never be able to read it all (and that’s if you just hit pause with the current holdings). I remember having a hard time coming to grasps with this as a kid at my local public library. I wanted to know it all and didn’t quite accept that I couldn’t.

This is what makes a library great, to my mind. I am worried that it is a quality which is entirely dependent upon a profusion of books though. If the trend in our libraries is to be towards fewer books, or if we come to understand knowledge as separate from the object of the book, then this important feeling is lost. The digital hides the profusion, we know it’s there but we do not feel it.

How do we present, simultaneously, the known and the unknown in human knowledge?

How do we retain the challenge to the intellectual that the library presents?


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