In order to argue the social value of a library, there won't be much of a foundation unless one embraces some concept of a cultural canon*.
[*Leaving, for the moment, the historic Anglo-centric nature of America's particular library canon. What IS the canon is a different and rich question. But it's irrelevant to the proposition that there IS a canon, whether delimited, relative, or totalizing. (I'm personally for totalizing, and bearing all the taxes for its loving execution,) In any event, surely it's mistaken to belittle the idea of canon because the particular canon can't be fully and finally agreed upon.]
The library is the physical assertion of that canon. It reflects some broad agreement about books that are useful, influential, inspiring. It's not a list from an online book critic or magazine. It's a commitment, locally and nationally, that we treasure something, that we place these things, these articles - along with our faith in them - in trust. It's a ritual of trust between our generation and the last one; between ours and the next.
Books matter; and they matter in the most practical ways. Books inside the physical volume and hierarchy of a library are spatially and sensually accessible in ways that computer screens can never be. How many items can be arrayed, compared, browsed at the scale of a 2-dimensional screen? When our body goes hunting for books in a library, with all the serendipitous associations of movement, smell, color, light, shadow, touch, the fleeting but constant presence of others, there is no comparison to the associations that are elicited from a computer screen. And it's through associations we stay immersed, amused, focused. Physical immersion is what sustains our capacity to read a book; and frustrates our capacity to read in-depth off a screen.
Libraries may seem unnecessarily overwhelming in their display; but they echo the best promises of the Enlightenment:
That nature, in all its complexity, arrays itself before us, and that we are free and encouraged to explore and discover it. In a library, the physical universe of books receives us, compels us to sit down in comfort. And it convenes a reunion of brothers and sisters who have had vital things to share, across time, and who garnered our support in resisting disappearance.
Parenthetically, I tried to take the lesson of the library in designing this website, favoring the visitor's freedom to peruse a visual array; with, hopefully, the promise that, proceeding into different rooms, one may discover genuinely different things.
I wonder, too, if one might think of one's own public presentation in this sense:
One might be well-served to always have the best parts of oneself available to the world, with the doors in to themselves transparently on display.
I can no longer count on two hands meetings at which school boards, university presidents, construction managers, librarians, programmers, and architects cooly balance public budgets by disparaging the old library: "a warehouse for unread books", "an outdated sanctuary losing followers faster than the church".
The arguments generally have had a patronizing ideological certainty about them:
"The new library that creates unprecedented social opportunities and connects us, technologically, to the same resources - No!, infinitely more, virtually - than were in those dusty old stacks.
Some elders, eccentrics, and young faddists may still prefer the touch and smell of books, and we certainly want to maintain a curated legacy collection along with popular new items in our display stacks. But not much more is needed."
The words came in the context of financial institutional emergency where those making the statements were obliged by their employers, governors, or constituency to talk such blather.
These statements astonished me the way that acts of oblivious vandalism - the casual destruction of ancient ruins, for example - astonish me. And, with this particular vandalism, astonishment was joined by the simultaneous discovery that these people were beyond communication regarding the matter.