Ignore for a moment the free Wi-Fi, art gallery, café, water fountain, and public restroom. To my mind, the highest purpose that libraries can serve is to provide readers the opportunity to expand their horizons of knowledge without having to know the keywords by which to search for this knowledge. One simply has to spend a few minutes at the shelves of each call number, pulling books at random, to discover that one’s conception of what a library has to offer is only as broad as the books that one has examined from it. It is from here that one can determine the strengths and weaknesses of a particular library’s holdings, and appreciate the value that second-hand and rare booksellers present to us with alternative titles and editions.
Without this firsthand experience of browsing books, it is difficult for me to comprehend how one can put the 4.59 million books housed on The Internet Archive to good use. And I think The Internet Archive deserves to be put to good use–there is nothing else on the Internet that so deserves the attention of students in pursuit of a liberal education. The potential power and influence housed in these libraries has no constraints when tapped by a mind of voracious curiosity and intellectual rigor. The only requirement is that the hours spent in the libraries be voluntary–to lose oneself among the stacks, jotting down in a notebook all the titles worth revisiting. There is a civilizing allure in handling and being surrounded by sincere books of every age and variety.