What exactly are libraries for?

From libraries without books, like the songlines of the first Australians, to the library of Alexandria, the Bodleian, the Folger, and even the fabled libraries of Middle-earth and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, my new book The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders unlocks the bookish places that continue to capture our imaginations.

What exactly are libraries for? Scores of rationales have been put forward; scores of stories have been told. Libraries are an attempt to impose order in a world of chaos. They are signifiers of power (consider the libraries of Mesopotamian kings and American presidents) and prestige (remember the libraries of America's robber barons). They are an aide-m??moire of the species, a network of sanctuaries, a civilising influence in the New World, places of solace and education, sources of nourishment for the human spirit, cultural staging posts in which new arrivals can be inducted into their adopted countries. They are places for social connection and the creation of "social capital". They are places in which to give birth. They are places of redemption.

For Umberto Eco, the ideal library was humane and light-hearted, a place where two students could sit on a couch in the afternoon and, without doing anything too indecent, "enjoy the continuation of their flirtation in the library as they take down or replace some books of scientific interest from their shelves".

Much more than accumulations of books, the best libraries are hotspots and organs of civilisation; magical places in which students, scholars, curators, philanthropists, artists, pranksters and flirts come together and make something marvellous.

Yet none of these descriptions fits comfortably in the arid, clinical, neo-liberal, managerial paradigm of inputs and outputs and outcomes. And therein lies a problem. Throughout most of the modern world, that very paradigm guides how public funds are spent. The inputs for libraries (books, librarians, capital) are easy enough to identify, and to count. But what are the "outputs" of a library, and how might the "outcomes" be measured? The "performance" of libraries resists evaluation as much as the "customers" of libraries resist classification.

Investing in a new library often requires an act of faith. But leaps of faith are precisely what the cost-sphinctering managerialist paradigm is meant to prevent. The people of Alexandria and Athens knew the value of books for scholarship and culture and civil society. In large part, the history of libraries is the history of how that value was forgotten, then rediscovered, then forgotten again.

The Star Wars prequels introduced the Jedi temple and, at its heart, the Jedi library - a digital collection of books and star maps and other intergalactic media. As author and book historian David Pearson noticed, the design of the Jedi library is strikingly reminiscent of the Long Room at Trinity College, Dublin. So reminiscent, in fact, that the library issued a "please explain" to Lucasfilm. The resulting legal skirmish provided a curious metaphor for how traditional libraries are grappling with digitisation and the internet.

In 2017 libraries are at a digital crossroads. Behind digitisation, there has always been anxiety about a bleak future, in which libraries would become "content management centres", books would be replaced by screens, and something would be lost in the experience of digital browsing.

Browsing books on a screen is utterly alien to the delight of browsing and getting lost in a physical, fractal, serendipitous library of real books. For lovers of physical books, reading on screen or in microfilm is an unsatisfactory experience, like kissing a girl through a windowpane.

The potentially infinite scale of the internet poses an even bigger challenge. The World Wide Web is both a curse and a blessing for traditional libraries. It is their principal competitor, but it is also their saviour because, in the internet era, there is an urgent need for selection and curation.

This is an edited extract from The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells, out now via Text Publishing. $32.99.

Stuart Kells is an author and book-trade historian. His 2015 book, Penguin and the Lane Brothers, won the Ashurst Business Literature Prize. An authority on rare books, he has written and published on many aspects of print culture and the book world.

Stuart Kells will be conversation with ANU Emeritus Fellow and former ANU University Librarian Colin Steele in an ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event. Free. Wednesday September 20, 6pm. Conference Room, Sir Roland Wilson Building ANU. Bookings at anu.edu.au/events or 6125 4144.

This story What exactly are libraries for? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.