There is Nowhere Like the Library

 "Night View of The Geisel Library, University of California San Diego" by o palssonis licensed with CC BY 2.0.

The public library is one of the few places where we have brought into reality one of humanities best aspirations. A temple to knowledge, curiosity, and discovery. A place that holds the thoughts of history's greatest thinkers, novels from generations of storytellers, and knowledge of the world as it once was from those long dead. Importantly also a place that provides access these things to every member of society without regard to social status for free.

Grand rhetoric aside, in real life terms the library serves two primary purposes for me: an unmatched place of discovery and deep learning, and also the most effective workplace I have found for writing. However, I have begun to see some libraries orienting themselves away from being a place of discovery and more towards being primarily being a public workspace that also has books hidden away. This post will explore my love for the library in both cases, and why I am disappointed in the move away from enabling discovery by some libraries.

Library as workspace

There is nowhere else have I found as intellectually stimulating and productive an environment as the library. The library atmosphere makes it easy for me to sit down and write with an intense focus (or "flow" as it is often called) unlike any other setting. Already in writing this piece, I have written twice as much in 2 hours here at the library than I have in 2 months of trying to write at home.

In general we greatly underestimate the important influence our environment has on our mind. We often think of our brains as a computer (as a software engineer that is twice as true for me). While this can be a useful "mental" model, it is also fairly flawed. A computer doesn't operate differently if you put a bunch of computers in a room together, but the human mind certainly does with multiple humans in a room.

We think of ourselves and our mind as a thing separate from that which surrounds us. If we want to get something done we often try to muster self motivation from inside ourselves. But if we take advantage of the fact that our mind operates differently in different environments, we can change our environment to influence our mind and help us achieve our goals.

I haven't yet mastered the ability to design my own home environment for productivity, though I have made some strides in that direction after working from home for over a year due to the pandemic. But for writing, I have found is it much easier to move myself to a location where that better environment already exists. For me, that place is the library.

There is just something about the library environment that I can't get anywhere else. Many seem to get a similar boost from working in a coffee shop but the coffee shop environment feels different to me. A coffee shop is a more lively place, there's much more energy in the compared to the library. The library is a more contemplative environment. That contemplative atmosphere gets me into the kind of mental state I find productive when I write.

If you have a hard time getting into the right state of mind for writing, I suggest trying out some different writing locations. Particularly the library, which is the place I have found most effective.

Library for discovery

My other favorite library use case is as a place for discovering new knowledge I wouldn't otherwise come across. During trips to the library I will give myself an hour to discover. I let myself explore the shelves, grab any book that stands out, and flip through it.

On my most recent library visit I skimmed through books about the history of fashion, a book full of 2000 pages of photos and descriptions of antique Japanese clocks, and the frustrated rantings of a Blacksmith that sees the profession as losing it's honor. I always learn something new and interesting that I would not have come across otherwise.

It's that simultaneous breadth and depth of discovery that I haven't found anywhere else. Being able to explore the physical space is a much different discovery experience verses following long series of related digital links as we do online. Someone spending 2000 pages discussing Japanese clocks also isn't something you'll likely happen across online. The highly optimized discovery algorithms will put something more stimulating and easier to digest in front of you.

If you seek out the subject you might find a 10 minute Youtube summary video or a short Wikipedia article with a book as it's reference. But I feel that always looking at everything from this high level a lot of nuance is being lost. I say this not to disparage the internet and all the good it has enabled, or to suggest that you throw your smartphone in the ocean and only get information from your local library.

However, I am a strong believer in the importance of nuance and context and I have found no web media equivalent for the depth of a book. Of course there are eBooks, as an avid Kindle user I appreciate the value of digital books but I have not found the Kindle ecosystem enabling anywhere near the out of nowhere discovery I get from a library. Recommendation algorithms try too hard to appeal to my already known preferences and end up playing it too safe. Recommendations get trapped in a local maximum of just suggesting things very close to what it already knows I like, rather than suggesting something completely different which is a higher risk. That is where having a physical space to explore opens up possibilities.

The Looming Death of Library Discovery

This use of the library for discovery has started to grow out of fashion lately. Many libraries have reoriented themselves away from enabling discovery of books altogether. I was recently in North Carolina at the NC State Hunt Library. While it is aesthetically beautiful and high tech, the place didn't have almost any books in it.[1] A dozen shelves tucked in a couple corners across a massive 5 story building does not a library for discovery make.

That's not to say you cannot get books at the Hunt Library, NC State is very proud of it's industrial style automated "BookBot" that will retrieve books from the underground storage space that the books now live. But all discovery of books must now go through the library search engine. No more spontaneous discovery of books by exploring the physical shelves. It may be hours before BookBot pulls your book out of the bunker, so you should be sure the book is exactly what you want before you request it.

The NC State Hunt Library is completely oriented towards the library as a workspace[2] but has embraced it to such an extent that it has all but killed the library's use as a place for discovery. I find that sad but understandable development libraries feel the need to reinvent themselves to keep themselves relevant. But there is something unique being lost by going so far in the workspace direction. The NC State Hunt library turns the library into a glorified student co-working space where you can order books.


If you are like me and you haven't been to a library in awhile due to the pandemic or otherwise, I would recommend you to take the time to make a visit. Let yourself explore the shelves and learn something new or find a corner to finally write about that idea you've had kicking around. Even just an hour might give you an intellectual refill you didn't know you needed.

  1. NC State provides a 360° virtual tour of the Hunt Library if you are interested in visiting it from afar ↩︎

  2. NC State even produced this video promoting their "bookbot" as a way to save space to make the library a better workspace ↩︎