From Scrolls to Scrolling: Are Libraries Obsolete?

April 05, 2024 | 5 min read

Many people view libraries as timeless monuments to the pursuit of knowledge. Others think they're outdated relics of the past.

In a rapidly evolving world dominated by digital technology, the role of libraries comes under scrutiny more and more often. With information at our fingertips through the internet, what do physical libraries have to offer?

Join us as we delve into the role of libraries through history alongside Phoenix Grimm, a writer and library technician based in Delaware.

 

From Gutenberg to Google

One of the earliest known libraries was located in the ancient city of Nineveh in Mesopotamia (in modern-day Iraq), where King Ashurbanipal assembled a vast collection of clay tablets. In ancient Egypt, the famous Library of Alexandria was renowned as the intellectual capital of the ancient world, housing an unparalleled collection of scrolls and attracting scholars from far and wide.

During the Middle Ages, monastic libraries played a pivotal role in preserving knowledge in Europe, thanks to the monks who diligently copied and preserved manuscripts. The Renaissance witnessed a revival of interest in classical learning and the proliferation of private libraries among European elite. Of course, the rise of the printing press in the 15th century revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge, making books more accessible to a wider audience.

Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, establishing the first successful subscription library in the American colonies, and the following centuries saw a rapid expansion of libraries across the globe, fueled by advancements in literacy, technology, and public education.

More recently, the digital revolution brought profound changes in the way information is created and accessed, and the rise of the internet enabled the creation of virtual libraries and digital archives. Does that mean brick-and-mortar libraries have outlived their use?

 

Modern Stewards of Knowledge

Phoenix Grimm is a writer and library technician at a small public library in Delaware. Working at a smaller institution, they handle a wide array of work, from circulation to programming, and even driving the mobile library. Phoenix carves out time to write on their Freewrite Traveler during lunch breaks and weekends and evenings.

When asked about the evolution of libraries, Phoenix says,

"Libraries are masters at adaptation. I started in libraries in 2020, which is when everything changed. When COVID put an end to in-person programming, libraries switched to curbside pickup and virtual programming, and many libraries even today are still doing hybrid programming. Things have changed since then and they will continue to change, because as technologies and society evolve, the demands shift."

But should libraries have to evolve? Or this evolution simply a sign that they've become obsolete and are no longer necessary for accessing information?

"Ah, yes, the internet has all the answers," Phoenix says. "Except it doesn't. It has responses, which aren't necessarily accurate."

Phoenix emphasizes that libraries don't just provide information — they provide accurate, peer-reviewed information. In fact, they provide community members free access to entire databases of peer-reviewed articles and papers that are often locked behind a paywall on the internet.

If libraries are stewards of knowledge, like the ancients believed, then the internet is a minefield of informational hazards and pitfalls.

While the internet gives the impression of democratizing the dissemination of information, the origin and veracity of that knowledge is often difficult to verify, especially for young people. Libraries provide a space where people of all ages can discover knowledge — and explore it in more depth, for free and with scholarly guidance. 

Besides all that, Phoenix says, libraries don't just lend books anymore. Most libraries have audiobooks, MP3s, DVDs, Blu-Rays, video games, board games, laptops, and Wi-Fi hotspots. Not everyone has internet access at home, and libraries level the playing field by bridging the "digital divide" and providing access to everyone in the community. This, at the end of the day, is the sharing of knowledge that early libraries intended — but in a thoroughly modern way.

That's before even touching on programming: many libraries host story-times and summer reading programs, concerts, lectures, book clubs, and craft classes. In Delaware, Phoenix says, several libraries have telehealth kiosks, and many have librarians dedicated to employment and business services, on-staff social workers, and more.

"Libraries have absolutely assumed roles beyond their traditional scope," Phoenix explains. "A lot of these roles should be filled by other government agencies, but they are overwhelmed, and I would rather those people come to libraries than fall through the cracks entirely."

In other words? "Libraries are the hearts of modern communities."

 

On the Front Lines

As the demands of the community shift, so, too, do the obstacles libraries face. From book bans to the never-ending debate over public spending, questions continue to arise about the relevance of public libraries in today's world.

"Budgeting is the eternal woe of libraries everywhere," Phoenix says. "There's never enough money, because there's always more people to help, more technology coming out, more materials."

Phoenix challenges readers with a simple question: Have you ever benefited from a library? (This author can confidently say yes.)

Did you have one in your school? (Yes, it was my favorite place in the school.) Have you ever needed assistance finding a job or even locating a notary? (Yes, I went to the library for a notary twice last year.) Have you ever needed to use a computer when you didn't have one? (I'm lucky enough to have a computer at home, but I've gone to the library to use the printer!)

"Libraries are absolutely essential today," Phoenix says. "They provide everything from information to entertainment, and studies have shown their benefit. And honestly, I can assure them, you lose more in pocket change than you pay to libraries yearly."

It's true that studies have consistently shown that libraries yield substantial returns, both economically and socially. For every dollar invested in libraries, communities reap benefits like enhanced literacy rates, increased workforce readiness, and bolstered community cohesion.

Phoenix adds that the biggest help community members can give to any library is support. If enough community members come together and say they want their libraries to be funded, politicians will cave.

In Delaware, the library system just held "Leg Day," where individuals from the community and libraries across the state traveled to Legislative Hall to meet with representatives and advocate on behalf of libraries.

 

The Future of Libraries

From traditional print collections to digital repositories, libraries continue to adapt and thrive in the digital age, reaffirming their enduring relevance as guardians of knowledge and culture. As humanity's habits and technologies change, so, too, will libraries' guardianship of knowledge and the community as a whole.

Ultimately, investing in libraries is not just a prudent fiscal decision but a reaffirmation of our commitment to education, equality, and the common good.

In the face of discouragement, Phoenix offers a poignant reminder for library workers and patrons:

"Stories are the most powerful things in the world. They live on for generations, through empires even, and there's nothing more magical than helping them continue to live on and inspiring new ones."

 

--

 

Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

 

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May 24, 2024 8 min read

There’s an age-old debate about the superior version of a story: Is it the book or the movie? Most readers and far too many writers will default to the idea that “the book was better.”

But was it? Was it really?

May 20, 2024 9 min read


Talking to Alex Kazemi doesn’t feel like talking to the guy who wrote 2023’s “most dangerous book of the year,” a book Ellen Hopkins calls “raucous, raunchy, and sure to offend.” And it certainly doesn’t feel like talking to Bret Easton Ellis’s “favorite millennial provocateur.”

It feels like talking to a friend I haven’t caught up with in a while. And my friends just aren’t that cool.


We’re chatting because Kazemi lives a ruthlessly offline lifestyle, a philosophy at the core of Freewrite and which Kazemi sees as necessary to being the best artist he can be. Having garnered a book deal at the tender age of 18, he knows a thing or two about life as an artist.

Kazemi released his first book, Pop Magick, an occult book about how to manifest, in 2020. “Madonna helped me launch that,” he says, casually mentioning one of the biggest pop stars of the twentieth century. “So, yeah, that was insane.”

But it wasn’t until the release of his first novel, New Millennium Boyz, nearly a decade in the making, that things got truly wild.

Kazemi’s unflinching look at Y2K culture and teenage boyhood reads like a horrifying screenplay — or the transcript of a violent AIM conversation between bored, lonely teenagers. Even before publication, the book faced criticism calling it dangerous, prompting the publisher to splash a content warning across the front matter, to Kazemi's extreme annoyance. Conservative American moms later flagged it for book bans, leaving the Canadian author baffled.

Was an honest look at the 90s and early ’aughts really worth all that uproar?

We sat down with Kazemi to discuss the driving force behind his portrayal of this often-glamorized time period, why he felt compelled to present this reality to modern audiences, and how in the world he lives an offline lifestyle in the year 2024.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

 Mirror selfies without a smartphone

ANNIE COSBY: First things first. Are you a millennial?

ALEX KAZEMI: Yes. I was born in 1994, which means I’m on the cusp. I do not identify with any Zoomer qualities or tendencies at all.

COSBY: In general cultural discourse, millennials tend to get a bad rap – very infantilizing, even though some of us are 40. What's your take?

KAZEMI: I think it's pretty insane because we were dealt a really bad card, with the recession, jobs being lost, the digital age booming… Many of us still have memories of going to Blockbuster and, you know, AOL chat rooms and the early web. But then we watched everything go chronically online and digital through the 2010s. We watched technology and the information age replace a lot of skillsets. So we became a weird bunch, for sure.


COSBY: I do find it interesting that people glamorize that period specifically because it was the beginning of everything being online — so everybody's mistakes and drunken pictures are out there.

KAZEMI: Right? And we did it willingly.

COSBY: Oh God, the things I said to strange men in chat rooms.

KAZEMI: Me as well. And it’s so, so dark, because the internet has always been and will always be, even as we're adults and growing older, a mirror of our subconscious vomit. The frequencies we vibrated to when we were coming of age were more about exploration, and that's why there was so much stranger danger. There were so many scary scenarios that kids could get themselves into with the early web because of how unregulated it was, as well.

COSBY: Would you say New Millennium Boyz is a defense of the way we Millennials are? Or is it a commentary on how misremembered that era is?

KAZEMI: It's definitely a commentary. And it's supposed to be historical fiction, educating younger folks and also older generations about how, you know, this beautiful picture that you see of Rachael Leigh Cook from She's All That on TikTok? There was actually a lot of darkness and chaos going around, especially when it comes to very normalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

 

 

I find it very ironic that this new generation that is so fixated on social justice and evolution and freedom would fetishize the aesthetics of an era of true debauchery and chaos and cruelty — like really — which was mirrored in the art in that period. Look at 2000s teen movies! I just wanted to write a satire of that extreme teen genre, like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Larry Clark's Bully, Spring Breakers...

My second motivation was to really look at boy culture in the post-Columbine era and how this was very much a prescient, predictive time of where we would end up with the alt-right and 4chan and “incels,” and how it's all connected.

And then of course exploring the romanticized aspect of Y2K — going to the mall, people wearing Marilyn Manson shirts, and the aesthetic obsession with it. I wanted to create the book I wanted to see in the world that I didn't feel existed yet.

COSBY: I’ve heard you talk about the misogyny of the “teen girls are bitches” trope. It's like, have you met boys? Have you been a teen boy talking to other teen boys?

KAZEMI: Oh, they're the biggest bitches. They're so cruel. You see the “mean girls” trope in tons of movies, like Jawbreaker, but it’s so strange how we don't ever look at the cruelty teenage boys face. And not just the cruelty but also the misguidedness and the culture that feeds that.

Especially in the 90s and 2000s, boys were so encouraged to be testosterone-driven and hyper-masculine. Woodstock 99 was such a great example of the chaos of too much of something – and it’s being talked about now because of the documentary.

COSBY: New Millennium Boyz really explores this violence inherent to 90s culture for boys, and because of that, it got a content warning, right?

KAZEMI: Yes. During the final cuts of the book, when we were in edits and copy edits, I got the call from my publisher that “So-and-So is not going to stock it without a content warning because they're really worried about how teenagers are going to react to the work and if they're going to reenact the behavior.”

And I was like, this is a cultural critique. It's not anything to be glamorized. I think anyone who reads it would understand that.

COSBY: Do you think we as humans always look back on past time periods with rose-colored glasses, or is there something special about Y2K?

KAZEMI: There's something really freaky about what we're doing with the 90s and 2000s. I don't think we've ever before been in a place, as humans, where corporations like Meta and TikTok can just algorithmically feed into us all the time.

A teenager in the 90s could fetishize the 70s or the 60s, but they could close the book when it was done or finish the movie and turn off the TV. But with Gen Z, and every generation now, we're just inundated every day with memes, photos, videos, and other people’s thoughts.

And I guess this 90s nostalgia is partly because it represents familiarity for people of a certain age, but even for the people who didn't live during that time, it seems to represent a kind of order, a sense of quietness — “Oh, 90210 is on at 9 p.m. and that's all there is.” No choices to make. There weren’t one billion options like kids today have.

COSBY: So you think people are viewing that period as a time of simplicity and unplugging, which we’re all kind of yearning for now?

KAZEMI: Yeah, and you certainly could unplug then, but you can unplug today, too — we're just brainwashed into thinking that we have no choice, that we have no free will. But it's totally not true. You could simulate Y2K if you wanted to! You just have to set a lot of boundaries.

COSBY: Like writing on a Freewrite.

KAZEMI: Yes! That’s why I write offline. Over the years, I’ve had different cool ways to do that. For a lot of my teenage years, I wrote in Apple Notes. Then, I ordered a BlackBerry off eBay and used it as a word processor for a while. I have a dead AlphaSmart here — rest in peace.

I feel like what's so crazy about Freewrite is a lot of people don't know that these products exist, which is a problem.

COSBY: It's also super polarizing. Without even trying it, some people are like, “What is this hipster thing?” Meanwhile, we get so many messages from new users saying, “What is this magic? I'm actually writing for the first time in years!” It's really interesting to see people's reactions. Tech is such a weirdly touchy subject.

KAZEMI: And a Freewrite is way better than a typewriter. I'm not fucking doing the ribbon, there's no time for that.

COSBY: Some people do though, right? Aren’t you friends with Matty Healy?

KAZEMI: Yes, yes. I told him about Freewrite. I love his songwriting. I love the 1975's lyrics. I love him as a literary mind.

COSBY: Alex. [heavy pause] Is he the one being referenced in the song?

KAZEMI: [rolls eyes] Honestly, I'm not really interested in all the gossip. I don't think great artists should be reduced to that.

COSBY: OK, that's fair. I think they're both great storytellers, too. And it would be so hard to live a creative life under that kind of microscope. On that note, your offline approach to life goes beyond writing, right? How does that work?

KAZEMI: Well, it definitely includes a lot of conscious boundaries that annoy a lot of people.

I’ve had a flip phone for a few years now, and I have a landline. When it comes to the internet and iMessage and emails, I try to do regulated “office hours” of screen time.

It's a very privileged position to be in, because a lot of people have to be on call all the time for work. But being disconnected definitely gives me more time for my mind to be free and creative and to write more.

COSBY: And this annoys people?

KAZEMI: Yeah, it drives everyone insane. It's a huge boundary I put in my life. People have to go through loopholes to contact me. But it's the only way that I can have a life as an artist and as a writer.

All of this technology can be a tool. There's nothing inherently bad with the tools that exist on the Internet. It's just the compulsivity and the addictive mentality we have with it that creates this chaos for us as writers and artists.

COSBY: You've mentioned being on Tumblr before, back in the day — are you on social media now?

KAZEMI: No, I'm not. Sometimes I have to look at it on friends' phones to get a person's email or something like that, but no, I don't have social media. It's so scary, the pressure of having to perform or turn my most personally valuable things into currency — to monetize it. It just feels weird. I'm not into it. I'm not into it.

And when you're online so much, you're like, “I don't have to be doing this. Why am I doing this?” That's where that punishing feeling of addiction comes in. A lot of us, when we are in those spirals, we don't even really even want to be there. There isn't a sense of agency or control.

It's a loss of control.

And I think that submission of when you are looking at other people's work, what they’re doing, and you're scrolling, scrolling, it just creates a huge sense of inadequacy and darkness.

COSBY: It's interesting to me because time goes so much faster when I’m scrolling — and I feel the same way when I get really into something I'm writing.

KAZEMI: Like a flow state.

COSBY: Exactly! It’s complete absorption. But scrolling doesn’t make me feel good after, the way creating does.

KAZEMI: It’s like a black market, counterfeit flow state. A heroin flow state.


So I guess the question is: How can we induce positive, offline flow states?

COSBY: Isn't that the question. How do you do it?

KAZEMI: I find that just setting boundaries is so important. You have free will over your boundaries. This idea that we have no sense of agency and have to give all of our energy and life force to these corporations zapping us is just so crazy and unfair.

But when you bring up these things to certain people, they can't even fathom living without their online habits.

COSBY: Yeah, it has to be a conscious choice.

KAZEMI: You have to ask yourself:

"OK, am I going to just sublimate myself to be a consumer of everyone else's content? Or am I going to be a creator and produce?”

COSBY: Most of us know which one we want to be.

KAZEMI: You have to know which one you want to be.

COSBY: Any last words for the creators out there?

KAZEMI: For creators and artists and writers who are overwhelmed by information overload and the prospect of putting your work out there, just know there is an audience for your work. Just stay focused and don't be discouraged. You’ll find your place in the weird world.

--

Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

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Whether you love her or hate her (we’re talking to you, dads, Brads, and Chads) you’ll be impressed with these hidden literary references in Swift’s songs…