Library 20/20: Episode 002 – Reimagine Libraries

This episode contains interpolated audio from the TEDx talk “Reimagine Libraries,” delivered in April 2014 at TEDx Georgia Tech.

Music in this episode:

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Transcript after the jump:

Episode 2: “Reimagine Libraries”

[BACKING TRACK: “The Informant” by Steelism]

From the Georgia Tech Library, this is Library 20/20, a podcast about the future of libraries.

This episode is called “Reimagine Libraries.” You might call it a sequel to episode 1 of this podcast. Not only is it another annotated TEDx talk that I delivered in 2014, it is a talk I wrote to directly follow The Library is not a Collection of Books.

TEDx Georgia Tech invited me to speak at their 2014 event and talk about the Georgia Tech Library’s plans to redesign and reimagine the library. My audience was Georgia Tech students, for the most part, so instead of trying to convince myself and the general public of a conceptual change in libraries, I was telling the patrons of a specific library that we were changing everything about that library.

Perhaps I could have called this talk “De-romanticize Libraries” or “Change Your Mind About Libraries.” I was making the case that an academic library is not the extension of a sentimental, nostalgic vision of the public library.

One note before this starts — the source recording for this talk comes from a video camera set in the back of the auditorium. I have processed and cleaned the audio as well as I can, but it still will not sound as good as you and I would like it to.

[BACKING TRACK: “Saunter” by Podington Bear ]


So, how many people know that the Georgia Tech Library is going to be renewed and transformed? Show of hands. Okay, well now all of know  that the Georgia Tech Library is going to be renewed and transformed. And because I’m a librarian at the Georgia Tech, all I’ve been doing is talking to people about what the library is going to be, and what’s going to go in it, and what’s going to happen.

In fact, someone told me recently that everyone knows what a library is – that they have a vision of the library from when they were a child and they bring that with them every time they walk into one.

And that vision is magical. And why wouldn’t it be? I mean, when you’re a kid, and you walk into the library, and you see all these rows of books taller than you are, that all smell like the past, like your grandfather’s coat, written by people that you’ll never meet who can still speak to you intimately, doing that trick that Stephen King thinks we should call telepathy, where words on paper create thoughts in your head. How could that not be magical?

And then when we’re adults, we keep thinking libraries are magical. Our fiction is full of libraries that are full of magic. The dream library from The Sandman comic books, the Unseen University library in the Discworld books, of course Hogwarts, right? We’ve got that library in the Doctor Who story, we’ve got Buffy the Vampire Slayer –and where was it that the Ghostbusters saw the first ghost? In the New York Public Library.

The library is this magical thing. It’s an extraordinary agreement between the past and the present –the past says “We’ll hold on to this for you” and the present arrives and says “Thank you, that’s exactly what I needed. How did you know?”

Do you feel that magical library feeling when you click on a link, that’s probably in a Google results page, that brings up a digital file that only exists because a library begged, bought, or borrowed the access to that content?

Or when you no longer have to check out books, because you can buy whatever you want to read, or because you have 21 credit hours that you’re working on and don’t have any time to read, is the library still important?

 Everyone has a vision of librarians, also. Even Melvil Dewey, who created a Decimal System that some of you might know about, he didn’t have a nice vision of librarians: Melvil Dewey wrote in 1876 “the best librarians are no longer men of merely negative virtues.” And he was a librarian.

Melvil Dewey knew about negative virtues. He was a champion of education and libraries but he was also a nutcase that was kicked out of the American Library Association that he helped form because, and I quote, “he was unable to control himself around women.”

This is true. That quote about Dewey comes from the book Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, by Wayne A. Wiegand. Dewey is a very useful tool in blowing up pre-conceptions about libraries.

This next section is like a revamped version of The Library is Not a Collection of Books — there’s even a repeated line — but I’m setting up a discussion of scholarship and books. That’s where the bit about Thomas Jefferson becomes important.

[BACKING TRACK: Heliotrope by Blue Dot Sessions  ]


People are very complicated, they’re never just one thing.

Melvil Dewey is not the bespectacled, mild-mannered librarian that you might picture when you think of the Dewey Decimal System; he was a firey, difficult, unflinching activist. He believed that libraries were part of the education system. And he thought that books were secondary to the library’s mission.

Now you might ask yourself, how can books possibly be secondary to the library’s mission?

And to start answering that question, we should talk about the library of Alexandria.

Now it’s very likely, but not confirmed, that the Library of Alexandria had, over one of its entrances, the inscription (translated) “Place for the Care of the Soul” or maybe even “Soul Hospital.” It had a garden, and a chapel, and offices that were really just nooks, and a place where you could look up at the stars. Because the point of the Library of Alexandria was to go there and stay, and think, and supplement your thinking with the scrolls that they had, and transform your philosophy, refine your thoughts. And when your visit was over, you copied your notes, and gave that copy to the Library to keep, so other people could use it. Although sometimes the Library kept your originals and made you take the copy, because the librarians of Alexandria were a tough crowd, and they were protected by the legacy of warrior-kings.

I like to call myself a warrior-king. I think it’s better than librarian.

The library isn’t about the books. It’s about what you do there.

Now as I have said to other people, I’m not trying starting a semantic dispute: I know that most libraries have collections of books, and I don’t want to convince you that they don’t, or that they shouldn’t.

I want you to think about why libraries have books. Why do those books seem magical?

To put it very simply, books are information containers. They are beautifully designed, high-density, aesthetically pleasing information containers. And they were, for a long time, the best way to keep, transport, and access information. That’s why, when Thomas Jefferson said “I cannot live without books,” it was a lot like someone saying now “I’d die without my iPhone.” It’s not the thing: Jefferson was not going to die for lack of stacks of paper, he was going to die for the lack of new information, that could bounce around in his skull and then come roaring back out transformed and amazing and absolutely infuriating to John Adams.

Here’s the actual line by Jefferson. It’s from a letter he wrote to John Adams in June of 1815: “I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.” That was eleven years before he died.

Now, I’ve mentioned Dewey, I’ve mentioned Jefferson’s book habit — the only thing left is to compare a modern academic library with the Library of Alexandria. This is a different kind of nostalgia for libraries. Once again, I’m deeply indebted to Lionel Casson’s LIbraries of the Ancient World for the history.

[BACKING TRACK: “Good Times” by Podington Bear]


For a long time, books were the end result of any creative or intellectual endeavor. Almost any. People would sum up their life’s work, put it in a book.They’d write down everything they’d discovered and they’d put it in a book, or they’d take pictures, or draw pictures, of the things that they had made and collect those in a book.

And libraries were perfect places to write books. You go there with a pad of paper and a pencil. Pull some books off the shelf, do a little reading. Follow some citations, take some notes. Write some, read some, write some, read some: do that everyday for three months and you’ll have a book.

But we don’t all write books anymore. A book can’t sum up everyone’s life’s work. And sometimes, a book can’t contain everything that one person discovered. And when you take a picture, it’s got embedded in it practically a book’s worth of metadata embedded in it, and a hundred people see it before you even realize that you hit “send” on your phone.

If we reimagine the library, if we think of what should a library be, in a world where books aren’t king, where information is [hand-clap] fast, and knowledge is material, and virtual, and collaborative all at the same time, what do we get?

We get a building that you can come to and live in for a while. It’s got food and coffee and soft places to sleep. You’ve got a building that has all the tools you need to create whatever you’re going to create, whether that’s a computer or a whiteboard or a CNC mill or a 3D printer or maybe just a table were you can spread out. It’s got spaces for quiet contemplation and for intense study and for reflection and for socializing and for productive collaboration. It’s got librarians who will come and help you find whatever you need, at the moment you need it, in the form that it comes in. And it’s a place that you go to feel like you’re going to work and to leave a record of what you’ve done.

In short, it’s the Library of Alexandria, with power outlets, and coffee, and no slaves.

So, the library is where you do intellectual and creative work, and it’s where that work ends up. You do it alongside the resources you need, and you leave your work there.

I’m going to say that again. The library is where your work ends up. When people say we stand on the shoulders of giants, those shoulders are made of the knowledge you find in a library, and now, you are making the knowledge that’s going to go in those shoulders.

And you’re not writing books, you’re designing airplanes and engines and portable toilets and Iron Man suits, and the library is going to scoop up all that stuff that you used to make those things — the papers, the plans, the prototypes, or even just pictures of the whiteboards that you filled up in the middle of the night — and it’s going to keep that so that when the future comes along, it’ll say “Thank you, that’s exactly what I needed. How did you know?”

This library that you’re creating the knowledge for, this library that you fill up, pretty soon, it’s going to be just as magical as the library of your youth.

So this is the point. We fill the library. Our history, our lives, our work: that’s what goes into the library, in whatever form we make it. That’s why libraries are important.

[BACKING TRACK: “The Informant” by Steelism]

This is Library 2020, a podcast about the future of libraries. I’m Charlie Bennett, and I wrote and produced this episode, which is called “Reimagine Libraries”.

This episode would not have been possible without Sameera Omar and TEDxGeorgiaTech.

Our theme music is The Informant by Steelism, and in this episode you heard two songs from Podington Bear, Saunter and Good Times, and one from Blue Dot Sessions called Heliotrope.

The podcast is on Twitter at Lib2020podcast, and so far I’ve got no reason to put us on any other platform for social media. For a full transcript of this episode, to make up for the bad audio, go to

Thanks for listening. Next episode in two weeks.

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