An opportunity to stop by the periodicals room in a well-stocked town library had me sensing something had shifted since my last visit. The room itself, at the heart of an 1884 building, is gorgeous, with tabletop reading lamps and much dark woodwork. The local history archives are in a tall-ceilinged room behind glass at one end, while the rest of the chamber is embraced by an open contemporary addition from 2006.
This time, though, as I looked around, I realized how few of the shelves had magazine covers facing me. Mostly it was the plain metal finish. And then what hit me was that of 14 of us sitting quietly there, all but two were working on their own laptops. We could have just as easily been at Starbucks, apart from the no talking and no food requirements.
As I read short stories in Ploughshares, with its heft an assurance in my hands, I reflected on the paradox of being one who treasures a room like this and its contents and then being one who’s appearing more and more only in digital formats read on these flickering screens.
What are we to make of it, ultimately? The library has posters telling patrons they can now access their favorite magazines online at home, thanks to an institutional subscription. So how do we simply wonder and peruse, open to whimsy and discovery? What are we losing and gaining in this exchange?