America’s first library

Leave it to Benjamin Franklin to conceive of the idea of a shared lending library. He hypothesized that a group with pooled resources could build a book collection that would go beyond the means of any individual member. In 1731, the Library Company of Philadelphia was incorporated as a subscription library. Wikipedia cites this motivation for the library’s creation:

“… they had discovered that their far-ranging conversations on intellectual and political themes foundered at times on a point of fact that might be found in a decent library.”

Members paid 40 shillings to join and 10 shillings per year after that. This library still exists today (with about 500,000 books) and still works under a subscription model ($200 to join and $100 per year).

In addition to benefiting its direct subscribers, the Library Company offered free access for delegates to the Continental Congress and Constitutional Conventions in 1774 – 1787. Perhaps they, too, stood to benefit from resolving points of fact that arose during debate. Hooray for fact-based discussion and resolution of arguments! Thank you, libraries one and all!

Bookless libraries

Imagine a library that has no books. Instead, the stacks have been replaced with computer terminals, e-readers (for circulation and checkout), and “collaboration areas.” That’s the plan for the new BiblioTech library in San Antonio, Texas. It will be an almost 5000 square-foot library, with precisely zero physical books.

Read more: The First Bookless Public Library: Texas to Have BiblioTech

Libraries (especially public ones) continually seek to reinvent themselves to suit patron needs and desires. A publicly funded service must necessarily stay relevant to its funding source, but from what I’ve observed, the people running libraries and working in them also embody an ethic of relevance, benefit, and impact as a matter of course. This move is inspired by the observation that many people today have less need for physical books, or they appreciate the convenience of electronic access, and some can benefit greatly from circulating e-readers if they do not have the resources to purchase one of their own.

However, the move to an all-digital, all-virtual content library is a radical one. It may be risky, since libraries are still engaged in an excruciating wrestling match with publishers who dole out library access to e-books grudgingly or not at all, and often at steep prices when they do. (Consumers currently get far better deals, in terms of selection and price, when purchasing for themselves, than libraries do.) If publishers were to shut libraries out completely from e-books, what would the bookless library have left to offer? Further, if the content is all electronic, why bother having a physical building at all? Will people come to it?

And yet there’s something to be said for a physical-virtual library. People use libraries for a surprisingly diverse array of activities, not simply removing and returning books from a warehouse. They gather to have meetings, to study, to roam the Internet; they form book clubs and attend workshops and fold themselves into cozy armchairs for naps. Children attend storytimes and activities and get involved in volunteer programs. Reference librarians provide a uniquely valuable service in the form of guidance to relevant resources, through an increasingly overgrown jungle of information glut, and they do not charge a consulting fee. Altogether, these areas are where the library manifests as a community resource, above and beyond its store of books. Even with all-virtual content, there will still be value in these face-to-face activities… if people can be persuaded to leave their home and come. Bring on the coffee bar!

Once more unto the b-r-e-a-c-h

Today I got to once again match my orthographic wits against 30 other people in the Adult Spelling Bee in Long Beach, CA. Here are the first seven words I was given to spell:

  1. extradite
  2. notch
  3. rescind
  4. meticulous
  5. gossamer
  6. tranquil
  7. succinct

At this point, we were almost 1.5 hours in. The organizers did a headcount, found that we had 16 people left, and decided that they needed to take it up a notch to whittle more down. So we jumped into a much harder word list, and people started dropping like flies.

The spellers before me were given “quiescence,” “absinthe,” “chicanery,” “babushka,” and “colcannon.” I would have been okay with any of those (I think).

I was given “locofoco.” My reaction: ?!?!?!! The audience: ?!?!?!

I asked for a definition and got: “a member of a radical group of New York Democrats organized in 1835 in opposition to the regular party organization.” You recognized that, right?

I asked for the language of origin and got “probably Latin.”

So I went ahead and guessed. And got it right (!).

The next round, I was giving “atrabilious.” The definition was something about being inclined to anger (as I recall), although now when I look it up, I get “given to or marked by melancholy.” At any rate, I spelled it as “atribilious” and with that, my 2013 bee ended. Done in by a schwa!

In the end, I tied for 6th place. My track record at this bee has been: 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place, so linear regression predicted 5th. I guess I slightly underperformed. :)

I enjoyed sitting through the rest of the competition, which got very fierce and crazy indeed near the end. Final words included (starred words are ones I would have missed):

  • *chiropteran
  • flivver
  • empyrean
  • *misoneism
  • *callipygian
  • nescience
  • pinyin
  • pyrrhic
  • nonpareil
  • cyrillic
  • hafnium
  • *auscultation
  • lamia
  • demarche
  • *weisenheimer
  • legerdemain
  • *videlicet
  • seriatim
  • *imprimis
  • etesian
  • pneuma
  • flocculate
  • syncretic
  • interrobang
  • primogeniture
  • espiegle
  • mimesis
  • interdict
  • *crwth ?!?!
  • *gregarine
  • gnomic
  • obloquy
  • *argillaceous
  • farrago
  • *dengue
  • *moitie
  • *polysyndeton
  • *kluge
  • denouement
  • maquette
  • panegyric
  • festinate
  • tourbillion

And finally, Jim Sherry from Alabama spelled the winning word, “quincunx.” It was a great victory! And especially since he’d come from so far away, and had been saying before the Bee that Delta lost his luggage, so it had been a rough trip so far. Now he’s the champ! :)