Old books and ecosystem services

Losing libraries in America.

The Douglas County Library system in Roseburg, Oregon is shutting down. If you go to their home page today, you get the following message:

Welcome to the Douglas County Library System!
The LAST DAY to checkout materials will be Saturday, May 27th.
Final due date for all items will be Wednesday, May 31st.
Items not returned may be subject to collections.

A tax levy to sustain the libraries was voted down. The Randian culture of anti-tax fervor and its virulent contempt for anything that serves the public good has chalked up its latest victory.

A library closing for all time, leaving an entire community in a bookless vacuum, is a shattering thing to consider for bookish people like me. A stab at the heart of who we are. For what we understand a decent society to be. Making free books available, largely to kids and students and retirees on fixed incomes, is the very least we can do to provide for the common good. Supporting your local library is a no-brainer. But now libraries have become endangered ecosystems. The conditions of the world are changing and libraries are dying. My only hope is that they can evolve to survive in this new and more hostile climate.

Usually I go to the library to check out books for my daughter, who devours them. We like to buy books outright, but sometimes it’s hard for the pocketbook to keep up with the literary appetites of a thirteen year old. I try to imagine a world where that’s not possible, a dystopian hellscape where my kid finishes the second to last book of a series and I can’t dash down the road and breeze in and check out a free book five minutes before closing time on a Saturday afternoon so that she’s not stranded bookless for a rainy Sunday afternoon, left only with Mindcraft and Netflix for companionship instead of the magical, well-worn pulp of the last installment of a well loved children’s fantasy series.

I check out books for myself less frequently, but it still is a sort of magic when I do. I can’t believe such a glorious system exists in our often bleak world. The last time I checked out a book it was from my local university library. It’s easy to forget that books are the heart of the magic of these places, that libraries exist essentially as temples of the written word. The libraries that are surviving are having to evolve.

Like most modern libraries, it’s the work and study spaces that now take center stage here. Libraries have become community centers more than anything. This isn’t a bad thing, because it keeps them relevant. There are meeting rooms, computer banks and coffee shops. The largely vacant aisles of books seem to be an afterthought instead of the heart of the matter, some archaic and labyrinthine furniture that you weave through on your way to something else. The stacks of books, with their colorful spines remind me of swimming through the channels and aisles of a coral reef, with its rows and columns of randomly brilliant life arranged according to some mysterious plan. If this metaphor seems awkward, perhaps it’ll come clear when we get to the book in question.

As a writer and someone who loves books…the feel and smell and pattern of them when they’re stacked neatly in rows, the countless possibilities and dangerous secrets that can spill out of them…I’m worried that these habitats are endangered: the library, the bookshelf and the crumbling pulp of the books themselves. I worry that even in the great libraries of the world, even if those in more populous areas that manage to survive the callus indifference and neglect that killed off the Douglas County Library System, books will begin to disappear, giving way to computer labs and server farms, acres of smart classrooms, LCD screens and study carrels sporting power plugs and USB adapters.

But, for now at least, there’s still magic tucked away in those forgotten aisles, beyond the smell of dusty old paper and the textured landscape of spines.


The book I reserved that started this rumination was Darwin’s The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. It’s his classic text on the subject. I’m doing research for a documentary film I’m working on about the heartrending destruction of coral reef habitats: half of them have disappeared over the past fifty years, mostly due to human indifference and greed, not unlike the factors that contribute to the destruction of Roseburg’s library. And of course, among the first victims in such a slow-rolling tragedy are the people who live closest to them.

I’m also doing research for a collection of novellas I’m writing that are all set in some of the reef-dependent communities I’ve visited around the world. Novellas seem to be an appropriate medium. I’ve been told by agents and others that this form is largely unpublishable and not worth pursuing. But I’m stubborn, so I’ll finish the project regardless. I’ve been reading my Jim Harrison and Katherine Ann Porter, both of whom did well by this obsolete format, and whose books still fill library shelves. For now. Still, it strikes me that novellas are basically a part of a vanishing landscape just like reefs. They’re artifacts from the dusty stacks. So this seems to me all the more reason to write in this form.

I’ve been so lucky to see some of the world’s reefs. I’ve seen vast stretches of corals, many of which are now gone. I wrangle with this knowledge…that our species can wipe out an ecosystem on the other side of the planet through our thirst for energy a half world away, that my simple act of plugging in a laptop at the university library will suck power that is generated by sending carbon into the skies, which in turns warms the ocean or sinks back in the sea to turn it more acidic. The slightest change in Ph, one degree difference in temperature can destroy the magical, resilient yet finicky corals, these tiny creatures that build the massive submerged cities we know as reefs. It’s kind of like how the simple act of filling in a circle on a ballot, or failing to, can destroy a pillar of a community like Roseburg.

As a writer, having had the privilege of seeing these landscapes that will soon disappear requires that I write about them. That’s what writers do, I suppose.

Back to Darwin’s book. Maybe because I’m lazy or because this is just how it’s done now, I reserved the book online rather than try to hunt it down in the stacks. More flickering electricity. More carbon in the atmosphere. Then a few hours later an email appeared telling me the book awaited me at the checkout desk.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the circulation desk, maybe a cellophaned and sterile reprint, but what I received was pure magic. It’s not so much a book as it is a work of art. An antique. An ancient treasure.

It’s a third edition, an 1897 print of Darwin’s book. The cover features a leather spine and edges around a marbled textured stock. There’s no image on the cover, but the pattern and colors evoke a topographical or aerial view of reefs. Indeed, this was printed long before flight or even the notion of space travel, yet it seems the perfect texture to conjure the concept of the massive reef systems, built by tiny polyps, structures that grow so large they can be seen from space.

The pages are yellowed and fragile. And perhaps the biggest surprise are the fold-out three-color prints that show the reef systems of the world as well as some of the specific atolls that Darwin describes in the book. These maps are delicate. Even the tape that someone applied sometime over the past century has mostly cracked and crumbled away. I applied some more tape in hopes of holding it all together long enough to survive my read and maybe a few more.

The embossed stamp on the title page reads, “Oregon Agricultural College,”  the name that our university held from 1890 to 1927, so it’s likely that this book has been in the library stacks for a good century or longer. It’s also a good reminder of the power of books…how a single printed volume can outlast the transient nature of the massive, multibillion-dollar, corporatized institution that our university has become.

It’s inspiring and humbling to read the work of these early naturalists. Darwin is at the same time tedious, meticulous and wide-eyed in reverence and wonder at the natural world. In the great scientific age before the narrow silos of expertise fractured the world of science into specialized fragments, writers like Darwin and Humboldt studied, categorized, wrote, painted, philosophized speculated and reveled in the unfathomable puzzle that is nature. In the book, Darwin carefully categorizes his every observation of a coral atoll.

What’s missing from the book, though, are people. Human beings. Our species. Darwin wasn’t concerned with people in relation to coral reefs. His mind roamed over his theory of subsidence, the wave-driven causes sedimentation and the selectivity of coral species. He explored the texture of the mud or clay in the floor of the coral lagoons. He measured depths and distances. But there’s a sterility in his work. And maybe that’s why I’m working on a film and now a collection that focuses on human side of coral reefs.

For tens of thousands of years, coral reefs have sustained our species. They provide “ecosystem services” to the human communities that live on or near them. They protect villages and cities along the shore from storm surges, providing a barrier that absorbs storm energy before it makes landfall. They attract and sustain vibrant fisheries, feeding hundreds of millions of us. They hide ancient chemical secrets that scientists are just now learning how to turn into medicines. The proverbial cure for cancer could lie somewhere in the microbial soup of a vanishing coral reef. And plus they’re just astonishingly beautiful. Corals are the original eye candy. They’re nature’s art. No digital screen, no photo, no video, no story and not even a beautiful book like the edition on Darwin’s Coral Reefs can do them true justice.

But we have to try. I’m scratching away at my novellas even though I’ve been assured that publishers won’t be interested. I’m working on a documentary film that may have more promising prospects of finding audiences and sharing them the miracle and tragedy of humankind’s interaction with these tropical ocean habitats. I’m not always sure why I’m compelled to do this. But there is a clue in this ancient volume of Darwin that I discovered with very little effort at our university library.

This book is a reminder that words and stories live on. The library is an ecosystem in its own right. It may be equally as threatened as an institution as the reefs are. This is a world where greed is good. Where sharing is frowned upon and the institutions that serve the public good are regarded with suspicion, especially by Republicans. It’s a world where healthcare is a privilege and poverty seen as a deserved sentence for moral failings. Where the humans who depend on reefs have no more rights in a global sense than those habitats on their doorsteps that are daily disappearing from our recklessness.

But libraries still persist. In a world where climate change is denied in order to pave way for maximized corporate profits and where half-penny library taxes are routinely voted down in forgotten counties around the nation, libraries still survive. You can still go to them and inexplicably read something for free while simultaneously sticking your thumb in Ayn Rand’s eye. The public good still persists in forgotten corners of the world just like those few remaining reefs that manage to survive the onslaught of human pressures. The only requirement to check out a book is that you are alive and you show up during library hours. And if you have an address you can even take as many books home as you can carry.

That this system even persists in today’s world is a hopeful sign. Libraries provide so many ecosystem services to our species. Built on the individual polyps of the books themselves, they’ve grown to provide digital resources, community spaces, galleries of art, classrooms and even just a warm place for homeless people to hang out for a while. They’re a symbol of the good things that societies can produce when they look past individual greed and narcissism.  The incomprehensible beauty of the system that landed Darwin’s book in my hands is, in itself, a sign of hope. As long as you can find this crumbling book in the stacks, then maybe coral reefs also still have a chance, too.


Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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