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Life Between the Covers

Southern Arizona library expert David Laird contemplates the future of reading

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Not long ago, retail giant Barnes and Noble was demonized for stomping out independent booksellers all across America.

Today, it's the last great hope for print publishing, according to a recent story in The New York Times. So perhaps my meeting with David Laird outside the retailer's midtown Tucson store is quite appropriate. I contemplate this as I grab a stinging-hot cup of joe and sit down with the pithy and prominent longtime librarian.

David Laird's dad was a heavy-equipment operator, gainfully employed by drifting with road crews across the wind-tousled Midwest. The family lived in a 45-foot travel trailer. And at every layover in every town, his mom's first priority was getting her kids a checkout card at the local library.

You might say the lesson stuck. After leaving the Navy in 1959, Laird was to spend the rest of his life reading books, reviewing books, selling books and running major libraries. Early on, he was mentored at UCLA by venerable Southwestern writer and pioneering librarian Lawrence Clark Powell. Laird went on to work in acquisitions at the University of Utah's library, ending his stint there as acting head librarian. His next stop was the University of Arizona. It was the early 1970s; Powell was serving as library adviser to then-UA President John Schaefer, and David Laird was emerging as a prodigy.

Barely six years out of college, he was tapped to head the UA's new library before that library was even built. "I couldn't have done it if I'd been older," he says, "because I would have known I couldn't do it. I was young enough and riding high. And that's the only reason I think it worked."

Work, it did: Laird ran the institution for the next 18 years, until his retirement in 1990. After that, he began dealing in rare and collectible books. He's also a veteran contributor to the influential Southwest Books of the Year, published by the Pima County Public Library.

Throughout those decades in the stacks, Laird has watched the quality of literature ebb and flow, and seen libraries morph from book repositories into digital-information hubs. Over that time, of course, dusty tomes have also been increasingly replaced by ethereal e-books.

For the record, David Laird owns an e-reader and an iPad. He also savors the venerable joy of opening a time-worn hardback. A good hardback, that is.

So a Luddite, he is not. But he also takes a clear-eyed view of technology and its impact on the written word. Not surprisingly, those effects first took root in libraries some 50 years ago, says Laird, when the Rand Corporation pioneered new methods for accessing information. One initial breakthrough was an enormous, automated device that--armed with a retrieval number--could pluck documents from the shelf and dispatch them to readers by conveyor belt. For its time, the system was a marvel.

But even then, not everyone felt that embracing the future meant tossing out the past. Lawrence Clark Powell was among the techno-skeptics, says Laird. "He saw literature and libraries as a process rather than a product. And as he saw that process, it needed to move forward in a steady way. From his point of view, bringing a bunch of electronics in with a bang wasn't the way to get there."

Later, when Laird had his own library staff, he nearly faced a revolt by introducing the UA library's first computer terminal. "I told them, 'You had better learn how to use that computer, because that's the wave of the future,' he recalls. "And they booed me, because they were book people, and they didn't want to have to think in those terms."

How does that wave appear today, within the long lens of hindsight? "Personally, I think it's changed things for the better," he says, "as long as you're a democrat with a small 'd.'"

In other words, libraries are now easily available to more people than ever before. "There was a time when we thought libraries were open to the public--and they were--but access was a bear unless you had an education. Now, people can access libraries from their own homes" by going online.

But with that shift comes caveats. "Librarians have primarily become information specialists," Laird says. "That's meant there are fewer spots for them. And because everything can be done electronically, the old guard have become teachers--teaching people how to use a library--while the new guard is a much smaller and fairly elite group with access specialties of various kinds."

Is that information revolution also reflected in the literature of our time? To answer, librarian David Laird dons the hat of David Laird, literary critic. And the literary critic contends that the past few years have been disappointing.

"But I can almost see a legitimate reason for that," he says. "All the good, big stuff, Cormac McCarthy and the great writers, also had great publishers like Scribner and Random House. But those publishers can't keep existing if they don't also publish the stuff that's going to sell, at least to some extent. They need to have dollar income. As a result, they're publishing lesser-quality work in order to keep income flowing.

"The replacement for the publishing they used to do is self-publishing, which--because anybody who's got $100 can do it--means the quantity of that stuff has mushroomed like crazy. How do you find a really great piece of literature in there?"

The self-publishing industry is plagued by books featuring all the hallmarks of bad or nonexistent editing, a trend Laird sees growing only worse as projects go straight from manuscript to e-book. "It doesn't even hit that interim stage of being on paper, when somebody might look at," he says.

Hmm.

We both sip our coffee in silence. Then we turn to glance through those windows, at row after row of books filling the Barnes and Noble shelves.

Will they be here if we return next year?

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