The Internet: Destroyer of Libraries?
Nowadays, I only go to a public library for two reasons. First is to go with our toddler daughter. She loves the puzzles and the toy chest full of books and the occasional storytime or toddler activity. Second is to pick up any inter-library loan requests.
Anything else–looking for books, getting on wifi, reading magazines or newspapers–is all things I now do from home, as a person of Internet privilege. I even have an ATLA and EBSCOhost account through my alma mater, so finding books and periodicals of academic nature is usually just a few clicks away.
The Internet has changed the way how people use libraries in much the same way that some people viewed the church: we were gatekeepers of knowledge (spiritual and…well, everything) that no longer have much of anything locked up in the Internet age.
So how have libraries adapted…and can the Church could learn anything from it?
The Library: Five New Reasons to Go
- A refuge for silence: libraries have a reputation for being quiet places, so much of the architecture of the new Oxford Library encourages silent reading or studying that would not be found outside, in coffee shops with canned music, or dormitory study halls.
- Amenities for sustained engagement: the new Oxford Library has a coffeeshop and other amenities to allow for all-day study and allowing people to really camp out and dig deep into the reading or study.
- Themed, not named, exhibits: it used to be that exhibits were about an author or genre, but increasingly Oxford has looked at a theme or subject through multiple disciplines (their first is on “genius“). The interdisciplinary approach draws people from multiple passions together.
- Group contact with original sources: the big libraries like Oxford have original documents that scholars can examine–but Oxford takes it a step further and allows larger groups to handle and examine the source material in ways that inspire collective learning rather than individual study. Rather than a “supermarket for books,” they become “laboratories for creative engagement.”
- Research questions beyond Google’s ability: Google is great for questions that people frequently ask, but what about the niches or novel questions? It takes a human touch and having scholars and experts on-site with the source material allows for faster answers than even Google’s supercomputer networks can provide. At least, for the moment.
In summary, from one of the Librarians:
“For the last 150 years academic libraries have seen themselves as information-centered storehouses of books and I think that was a mistake…We need to return to the original purpose of the library, which is to support all the various needs of the scholar and provide him or her with a place to come up with ideas and make breakthroughs that would not otherwise have happened.”
The Church: Five Parallels?
That last quote above is haunting and has affected the Church since the Gutenberg Press and Martin Luther got the Bible into the language of the people. Now that the Internet allows for spiritual and biblical questions and answers beyond the parish priest’s purview, how do we ensure that breakthroughs–inspired by the Spirit–find the same avenues that inspired our past leaders?
If we parallel these five learnings of libraries, what would they look like in the Church?
- Silent Disengagement: As we see phones and now watches become more ingrained in our lifestyles, what is a time of disengagement in the Church? While the humorous answer is that most church’s technology is circa 1998, what about intentional ways to help people unplug? Or to use technology in a way that allows it but people don’t feel the need to wander down the technology rabbit holes?
- Sustained Engagement: My church is a commuter church, so people tend to hang around between events so they don’t have to drive home. Are there offline or perpetual places where people can sit and chat or just be between events? If so, how do they encourage spiritual discussions rather than just sports conversations?
- Themed discussion: Sermon series are easily themed discussion because they hit on a topic from multiple angles–and often multiple preachers. But what about the education and roundtable discussions: how could they be more thematic than author/topic-driven?
- Engagement with the Deep: What are original sources? Are we talking only the Vatican library? Could churches be the primary organizers of pilgrimages to holy lands alongside fellow folks? Are we regularly offering connection with the deep “thin places” that Merton suggests are important?
- What can they not google? People’s faith stories can’t be googled–they can only be known in the sharing of coffee or the breaking of bread together. By offering interactions for faith-sharing, the Church can offer something beyond the scope of Google and beyond the surface-level of Facebook.
Libraries and Churches sometimes occupy the same genre in communities–accurately or not. In what ways can the Church adapt to the Internet world that doesn’t need their knowledge but doesn’t yet know they could benefit from experiencing Church?
Nurturing a Creative Faith
Faith happens anyway. Discipleship is inviting people into a process where they learn or experience things that they won’t learn on their own. If churches are serious about reaching the Creatives and Innovators in our midst, it takes offering them something different than they would get on their own as holy solitaries.
Libraries like Oxford have figured out some unique ways to be in the world that benefit creative engagement–will the Church follow suit and create a culture of organic difference in contrast to the mechanistic world around them? Or will the pews gather the same dust as the narrow stacks down below where only the dedicated wander?