ALBERTO MANGUEL: I don’t think that the definition of library has changed. Libraries have never been repositories solely of books. In Alexandria for instance, the model of the ideal library perhaps, there was a will to collect every book in the world, but at the same time they had maps and objects and there was a sense that this was a world of study and communication. The technology changes, and so electronic media should enter the library as long as we don’t forget that there are also books. I don’t believe in technologies that want to exclude one another. A new technology comes into the world and believes that it can bill itself on the corpse of the previous technology, but that never happens. Photography did not eliminate painting. Film did not eliminate theater and so on. One technology feeds on the vocabulary of the other, and I believe that the electronic technology has taught us to value the reading on the page, and the reading on the page has taught us what we can do on the screen. They are alternatives, but they’re certainly not synonymous.
JEFFREY BROWN: I guess what people wonder about, and some fear, is that the technology changes how people take in information, how we take in narrative, you know, our attention spans even to narrative, which can impact reading and therefore can impact writing.
ALBERTO MANGUEL: Of course. Two things happen. On the one hand, the new technology, especially in the case of electronic technology, which is pushed so hard for industrial financial reasons, may lead to us believing that the only possible communication is superficial and brief and easy and everything else should be eliminated. But at the same time, it makes us reflect, at least a few of us reflect, on the value of those apparently superseded qualities, and so we become more conscious of what it means to read on the page, more conscious of what it means to acquire the pleasure of reading through difficulty, more conscious of the importance of a book that allows depth instead of simply surface as in those objects we call books and that pile up on the bestseller tables. I think that we will eventually realize that there are certain reading activities that are better performed electronically, such as searching an item in an encyclopedia or a dictionary. If you want to go to one specific point, the electronic technology is not well suited to reading "War and Peace," for instance, in that it requires that almost perfect object, which we invented centuries ago — a book, on paper that can be transported anywhere in which we can write and that has a physical presence in our world.
Here are other essays by Manguel (all PDF). See especially Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader (PDF) and the very amusing NYT essay on libraries. I’’m a fan of his book News From a Foreign Country Came.