A few years ago, I opened the proceedings of a summit that brought together publishers, technologists, funders, and librarians by ripping the cover off a paperback book. I was attempting, feebly, to make a point about the inviolability of books. Having once worked in the mass market division of a major trade publisher, I knew that the life of a mass market paperback was often Hobbesian: brutal and short. Nevertheless, my actions gave me pause.

Today we are living in this incredible moment when we are all tearing off the covers of books. We look inside to see how they are written (by authors), produced (by publishers), and placed in the market (by distributors and retailers). Often, we realize that although much of the work of making books has not disappeared, it has been digitally shifted, and the organizational fabric of publishing is being rewoven before our eyes. The functions a publisher performs; what a book looks or sounds like; how books are authored; how authors make a living: all are changing.

When technology disrupts culture, the impacts reach far beyond economics. The book as we have known it—an object of a certain size, rectangular form, and weight—was an industrial product resulting from a set of complex economic, legal, and social relationships. What we can do with books is wrapped in a collective understanding that has been constructed through the work, and often the struggle, of women and men over many decades. It is because of that social understanding that I found it hard to tear the covers off a paperback; it is the reason why the burning of books is an act commemorated with plaques and ashamed solemnity.

It is also what makes libraries possible. These organizations, wildly irrational in economic terms and massively underwritten by public resources, acquire the world’s literature and then make it continually available, without discrimination, through free circulation. Through libraries, we optimistically assert that knowledge uplifts us all, and that our culture becomes richer when it is shared. The famous inscription on the main branch of the Boston Public Library, “FREE TO ALL,” is true in the instance, but only because we all make contributions towards its realization.

We are now engaged in acts of social reconstruction. Just as digital networks have forced us to deeply question the role of publishers, they also force us to reconsider the role and purpose of libraries, which developed in the modern era around the presumption of the Industrial Age book right along with publishing. A library fills many needs in its community; it is an after-school day care and gaming center, an employment hall and meeting space, offering shelter and privacy. It has also been a place with shelf upon shelf of CDs, newspapers, magazines, and books. Indeed, our understanding of libraries is so bound up in the physical world that their presumptive value has most often been measured through a single proxy: how many books they hold.

As books now flow onto the network, libraries no longer need to place them on their shelves nor do they need to buy copies of every book for each neighborhood served. From a purely technical perspective, there need only be one global digital library.

The economic and social issues, however, are rather more difficult. The value of libraries should not be measured in economic terms alone, but economic considerations must not be disregarded through an embrace of principles orphaned from their social context. What kinds of libraries are desirable, and what they mean for communities, for privacy, and for law: we must decide these all again. Fundamentally, the library must redefine its virtue for publishers and authors, and for citizens and politicians, in the midst of a world economy with significantly dampened public investment.

This is a discussion we must all have together. Our future library will be the product of a shared struggle. Factions will not always agree; our arguments may be vehement. Yet if we communicate with respect and without fear, then our hope for a future with greater access to more information, for more people, and with more participation, may be realized.

How we envision a literate and informed society determines how we make our laws and shape our covenants. We must choose with care, brick by brick, the height of the walls that we place around the sharing of our knowledge and culture. In the choosing we will define our libraries, and ourselves, in a digital age.

Peter Brantley is the director of the Bookserver Project at the Internet Archive, and a PW contributing editor on library issues.