Libraries are more than a repository of books; they’re a culture’s symbol of knowledge. Dating back to ancient Mesopotamia and coinciding with the emergence of the written word, libraries have evolved over the millennia in accord with the prevailing conception of learning, architectural trends, and technology. I have written over the years about the most famous ancient library, the Royal Library of Alexandria, with its rooms to store and study texts as well as its tree-lined walkways, surrounding park, arcades, botanical gardens, ornamental pools, and statue of the Muses.
Look now at the James B. Hunt Library, built in 2013 on the Centennial Campus of the North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Instead of fostering quiet spaces, this library, based on contemporary conceptions of learning, creating, and sharing knowledge, fosters collaboration in its architecture, the arrangement of its furniture, and its technology designed to bridge any distance.
But that’s not all. The library is run by robots programmed to retrieve any of its 1.5 million volumes in fewer than five minutes. And patrons can watch through a glass wall as BookBots, directed by an underground computer, zooms through Robot Alley to fulfill their request. Still, I have to admit, I miss wandering through the stacks, not just to find what I want, which any robot can do, but to stimulate my curiosity and ultimately my interest in unfamiliar ideas. Did you know that’s how I first encountered Maria Hebrea, the woman who was to become my model for Miriam bat Isaac? No kidding. I was wandering through the stacks when a book fell on my toe and opened to a page about her. I’d miss that experience at the Hunt.