So a friend of mine sent me this link which includes a bunch of articles about the future of libraries. Before I go on the rant I’m about to unleash, I’d like to say by way of full disclosure that I have not read any of them yet. I plan to read through and post my reactions on each one as I have time. For now, though, looking at the titles, a number of these are from angry Internet pundits who are lovers of technology and who possess an unreasoning distaste for libraries, who are predicting the downfall of libraries because the idea of buildings full of books is outmoded and archaic in an era when everything is FREE ONLINE!!!
I’ll be honest: I wish these uneducated morons would just stop, shut up, and go away. It’s their opinions that are invalid and archaic, as is their understandings of what libraries are and what they do. Now, it’s possible that I’m way off-base about the nature of these articles; as I’ve said I have not yet read them. However, it got me going on a pet peeve that I’m sick and tired of hearing, so I felt like laying a few things out.
Let me point out a few things.
1. Libraries are FAR more than “buildings full of books.” Nowadays you can borrow not just books, but DVDs, Blu Rays and CDs. And let’s not forget, folks: Netflix ain’t free, so while you in your cushy middle-class easy chair might enjoy unlimited streaming and DVD rentals for $20/month, not everyone can afford that kind of luxury. Libraries also lend tablets like the iPad and e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, providing access to technologies that many of these people can’t afford, so they can actually access these kinds of technology-based luxuries that for many of us have sadly become necessity. And while the delivery systems may still need some work, many libraries also offer extensive e-book download collections.
2. In addition to physical rentals, libraries also provide…wait for it…INTERNET ACCESS. Contrary to the Ivory Tower beliefs of the idiots who write these articles, not everyone in the United States, let alone the world, has or can afford Internet Access at home. Despite statistics that show 95% of households have an Internet-connected device, less than half of the households in the U.S. actually have Internet access—you see, many of the studies that produce these statistics simply count the number of devices in existence, then divide by the number of households without checking actual distribution, which is a difficult prospect to check in the first place. Other studies simply operate off of a set of interviewees, and these interviewees generally represent a cross-section of the middle class, not the poor. My home alone has seven or eight Internet-connected devises—that accounts for six or seven households in Homewood that don’t have any at all. So, for those people who can’t afford Internet access or a laptop, tablet, or smart phone, libraries provide a vital resource for things like news, research, and JOB HUNTING.
3. This brings me to the next service that libraries provide—Community Resources. Most public libraries offer extensive and free resources for job searching, resume creation, scholarly research (including vast databases for online scholarly journals and papers that even a comfortable middle-class person couldn’t afford). In addition, many public libraries also maintain extensive community archives, including local papers and historical documents relevant to the local community. Even in cases where these document archives are made available electronically, who do you think digitizes them and maintains the e-collection? That’s right—Libraries and Librarians. In addition, libraries provide conferencing and meeting facilities, including fully-furnished conference rooms, and even, in many cases, web and teleconferencing capabilities. And these facilities are—you guessed it—free. Think of the advantages this provides to small businesses, or even to no-budget community groups who can make use of such facilities but don’t have the funding to pay for it “downtown.” Oh, but wait, the poor and small business don’t matter to the “libraries are outmoded” crowd in their (I’ll say it again) Ivory Towers.
4. A safe place for kids. People SO de-value this or brush it off anymore, but go to any decent-sized community library and talk to the teens that hang out there (and you’ll be surprised how many there are), or talk to adults who made use of the library when they were teens. See how many of them will give you stories about how it was the availability of the local library that kept them off the streets, out of gangs, or just on the straight-and-narrow as far as their grades go. Libraries provide programming such as reading groups, book clubs, speakers, and even gaming groups—both tabletop and electronic—that engage and educate kids in ways that are less forced than school. In addition, with the Republican war on education going on, school budgets are being slashed and blind school boards are cutting library funding first. As more school libraries close down, where are students supposed to go to research assignments? The public libraries are stepping up to fill these roles—at a recent community planning meeting for the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh, a suggestion was put forth for the Carnegie to begin establishing a physical presence in the spaces left vacant by these closed school libraries, setting up satellite locations and service points therein. Whether this will come to fruition remains to be seen, but the suggestion was met with some approval by those assembled. So the physical location of a library is indeed important, regardless of what these “digitize the world so we never have to look at other people again” pundits think.
5. “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers; a librarian can bring you back the right one.” – Neil Gaiman. A trained information professional, which is what librarians are these days—my degree is in Library and Information Science—is almost always better than a computer search engine, because we rely on people skills and on intuition, intellect, and interview rather than numeric algorithms based on external links. Ask me a reference question and I can after talking to you for a few minutes intuit pretty close to what you need. Ask Google and all it can do is run your Boolean Query through its algorithm and bring you back a million possible choices for what you might want, most of which are based not strictly on what you asked for, but upon comparing keywords with sites that are ranked by the number of hits they’ve had and the number of other sites that link to them, as well as based upon your previous search history (which is why if you and I both search “India,” we might get two completely different sets of results).
6. Community value: I cannot remember for the life of me where I found this article, but if I can find it I’ll re-post it here. In the meanwhile, since this is a rant I don’t need to provide scholarly references. But I read a study within the past year or two that showed neighborhoods that had a library near a grocery store showed higher property values, a higher per capita income, lower crime, and a better sense of well-being amongst the population. Conversely, communities who closed their libraries and/or grocery stores saw a sharp decline in property values, per capita income and a rise in crime. I seriously need to try and find this article again because it’s one I think everyone should read, if they think libraries are an outmoded concept.
Now I’ve kind of lost my train of thought, which happens when you’re typing these things between doing other projects. But I think the point stands—Libraries are not outmoded, and they are not “buildings full of books” – that is to say, they offer a lot more than just books, both in terms of what you can borrow, and in the value they offer and add to any community in which they exist. Anyone who says otherwise has no idea what they’re talking about, but unfortunately open access and the Internet have given a loudspeaker to every moron with a mouth or a keyboard and the ability to construct a sentence, so they can voice their uneducated opinions, and far too many people still think if they read it, it’s true and are happy to consume whatever bile is fed to them by a screen. Next time you’re curious if a library has any value beyond books, ask someone with a degree in information science—they’ll give you “the right one.”