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December 18, 2004

Paradise is paper, vellum and dust
Ben Macintyre
Libraries will survive the digital revolution because they are places of sensuality and power

I HAVE a halcyon library memory. I am sitting under a cherry tree in the tiny central courtyard of the Cambridge University Library, a book in one hand and an almond slice in the other. On the grass beside me is an incredibly pretty girl. We are surrounded by eight million books. Behind the walls on every side of the courtyard, the books stretch away in compact ranks hundred of yards deep, the shelves extending at the rate of two miles a year. There are books beneath us in the subterranean stacks, and they reach into the sky; we are entombed in words, an unimaginable volume of collected knowledge in cold storage, quiet and vast and waiting.

Perhaps that was the moment I fell in love with libraries. Or perhaps it was earlier, growing up in Scotland, when the mobile library would lurch up the road with stocks of Enid Blyton and bodice-rippers on the top shelf with saucy covers, to be giggled over when the driver-librarian was having his cup of tea.

Or perhaps the moment came earlier yet, when my father took me into the bowels of the Bodleian in Oxford and I inhaled, for the first time, that intoxicating mixture of vellum, paper and dust.

I have spent a substantial portion of my life since in libraries, and I still enter them with a mixture of excitement and awe. I am not alone in this. Veneration for libraries is as old as writing itself, for a library is more to our culture than a collection of books: it is a temple, a symbol of power, the hushed core of civilisation, the citadel of memory, with its own mystique, social and sensual as well as intellectual. Even people who never enter libraries instinctively understand their symbolic power.

But now a revolution, widely compared to the invention of printing itself, is taking place among the stacks, and the library will never be the same again. This week Google announced plans to digitise fifteen million books from five great libraries, including the Bodleian. Google's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have declared their intention to collect all information online, an ambition that puts them up there with the Ptolomies, founders of the great library at Alexandria. What was once megalomaniac bibliomania is now a technological certainty.

Some fear that this total library, vast and invisible, could finally destroy traditional libraries, which will become mere warehouses for the physical objects, empty of people and life. The advantages for researchers of a single scholarly online catalogue are incalculable, but will we bother to browse the shelves when we can merely summon up any book in the world with the push of a button? Are the days of the library as a social organism over?

Almost certainly not, for reasons practical, psychological and, ultimately, spiritual. Locating a book online is one thing, reading it is quite another, for there is no aesthetic substitute for the physical object; the computer revolution rolls on inexorably, but the world is reading more paper books than ever. Indeed, so far from destroying libraries, the internet has protected the written word as never before, and rendered knowledge genuinely democratic. Fanatics always attack the libraries first, dictators seek to control the literature, elites hoard the knowledge that is power. Shi Huangdi, the Chinese emperor of the 3rd century BC, ordered that all literature, history and philosophy written before the founding of his dynasty should be destroyed. More books were burnt in the 20th century than any other in Nazi Germany, Bosnia and Afghanistan. With the online library, the books are finally safe, and the biblioclasts have been beaten, for ever.

But the traditional library will also survive, because a library is central to our understanding of what it is to be human. Ever since the first clay tablets were collected in Mesopotamia, Man has wanted not merely to obtain and master knowledge, but to preserve it, to hold it in his hand.

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library, wrote Jorge Luis Borges, poet, writer and librarian, who understood better than most the essential physicality of books. Borges was appointed director of Argentina's National Library in the year that he went blind:

No one should read self-pity or reproach
Into this statement of the majesty of God, who with such splendid irony
Granted me books and blindness in one touch

Libraries are not places of dry scholarship but living sensuality. In Love Story Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal get together with the library as backdrop; in Dr Zhivago , Uri and Lara find one another in a library. I have a friend, now a well-known journalist, who became overcome by lust in the British Library and was discovered by a librarian making love behind the stacks in the empty quarter of Humanities with a woman he had met in the tearoom. The librarian was apparently most understanding, and said it happened quite a lot.

Libraries are not just for reading in, but for sociable thinking, exploring, exchanging ideas and falling in love. They were never silent. Technology will not change that, for even in the starchiest heyday of Victorian self-improvement, libraries were intended to be meeting places of the mind, recreational as well as educational. The Openshaw branch of the Manchester public library was built complete with a billiard room.

Just as bookshops have become trendy, offering brain food and cappuccinos, so libraries, under financial and cultural pressure, will have to evolve by more actively welcoming people in to wander and explore. Finding a book online should be the beginning, not the end, of the process of discovery, a peeling back of the first layer: the word library, after all, comes from liber , the inner bark of a tree.

Bookish types have always feared change and technology, but the book, and the library, have adapted and endured, retaining the essential magic of these places. Even Hollywood understood. In Desk Set (1957) Katharine Hepburn plays a librarian-researcher whose job is threatened by a computer expert (Spencer Tracy) introducing new technology. In the end, the computer turns out to be an asset, not a danger, Tracy and Hepburn end up smooching, and everyone lives (and reads) happily ever after.

The marriage of Google and the Bodleian is, truly, a Tracy and Hepburn moment.