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Books Fade Into the Wallpaper

FOR homeowners and apartment dwellers who are short on space but long on literary pretensions, artist Richard Neas has a solution: a ready-made library, available not from booksellers but from wallpaper stores. With paste and a $158 roll of Mr. Neas's trompe l'oeil wallpaper, do-it-yourselfers can turn a blank wall into a faux library. Stacks of 19th-century leatherbound volumes - some standing upright, others at a tilt - appear to fill cream-colored shelves. Titles range from ancient history to gardening. Dickens's ``The Pickwick Papers'' occupies a prominent spot, as does a book written by Neas himself. Torn dust jackets and bookmarks make the scene even more realistic.

Neas points out the advantages of this make-believe library: The design ``makes you look intellectual,'' and ``there is nothing to dust.''

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No one is pretending that the literary illusion in this ``Biblioth`eque'' design, which manufacturer Brunschwig & Fils calls a ``playful jest,'' will be the library of the future. But considering the challenges facing many real libraries around the country, some book-lovers - among them the 15,000 cardholders at my suburban Boston library - find the possibility hitting close to home.

Headlines in our town newspaper warn of dark days ahead at the library. Faced with a town budget deficit of several million dollars, the finance committee has recommended a $400,000 cut in the library budget. If that happens, the library will be open only 25 hours a week. There will be no money to buy new books or magazines, and services such as story hour will be reduced or eliminated. Already the library is closed on Wednesday night.

So serious is the threat that librarians in a neighboring suburb, fearing an influx of library patrons from our town, are considering banning us from their premises.

Not surprisingly, local residents are shocked by the town's budgetary priorities. Words like ``outrage'' and ``dismay'' appear frequently in letters to the editor.

We are not alone. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, the state's main library for the blind will close if funding is not restored in the governor's proposed budget. And ``Friends of the Library'' groups in major cities are appealing urgently for private donations.

Nor are budgets the only problem. By one estimate, 80 percent of books in libraries today are printed on self-destructing acid-based paper and face eventual disintegration. At the Library of Congress alone, at least five million of the 20 million books are crumbling.

As books disintegrate (if not fade into the wallpaper), a further diversion is occurring. Under the title of ``learning resources center,'' libraries are turning electronic, with computers crowding books for space and funds. Projecting a time when the microchip will make the book obsolete as the storehouse of knowledge, Robert Zich, director of planning at the Library of Congress, predicts that ``Libraries of the future will be a service, not a place.''

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Perhaps. But is not computer literacy a faux literacy to match a ``faux library,'' as the wallpaper has been styled? With illiteracy rising, is this the moment to deemphasize books?

The public weeps about the vanishing of whales or condors. The book is not seen as an endangered species by younger generations accustomed to think of information and entertainment not as something you take down from the shelf, but something you wire into. But just as the electronic church can be no final substitute for the real thing, libraries too have to be a place, a vessel of civilization to be revered as well as an instrument to be used.

Victor Hugo called libraries ``an act of faith'' - a record that the human race has survived this far and will continue to need the past as it builds the future. If we can become distressed about burning flags, we should be distressed about crumbling books.

As ``an act of faith,'' or as a chronicle of mind and heart, there is something to be lost here that cannot be replaced by a blinking screen - or a wallpaper motif.

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