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The Library Is Dead. Long Live the Library!

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Image by Camera Obscura 1975

The other day Caitlin told Soleil they would visit the library for story time. Their conversation unleashed a well of hope within me.

I had come to believe that libraries were dying, just like the traditional publishing business that fills their shelves. I remembered reading that libraries were dwindling, and just wrote them off. Like many other things in our world, it seemed the library could not survive the ongoing Internet revolution, and its eReaders, blog posts, and Twitter archives.

Well, the library is alive and well. In fact, the library stands as a critical part of American communities, and a fundamental aspect of a child’s formative years. According to Pew, 97% of parents believe libraries should offer programs for children, and 69% of all Americans use a library.

What a relief. The Internet and big box stores like Barnes & Noble have not replaced the stacks, metaphorically speaking.

Granted, libraries face change due to the digital revolution. While many continue to offer traditional books, they also are rebranding themselves as tech hubs. Challenges exist like reaching people who now solely rely on the Internet, and more often than not children are the bridge to new library users.

04 mothers use libraries

Even more encouraging, parents are more likely to engage in library services, though like the rest of education statistics (literacy, college education), men trail women. So much to say about the dwindling pool of Renaissance Men, but that is an essay for another day.

How Children View the Library

When I was a child, going to the Abington Library was a favorite activity. I’d roam the stacks for hours seeking out adventures and new tales, and at times, drilling down on research.

There I found all of Frank L. Baum’s wonderful Oz books, and Robert A. Heinlein’s crazy erotic space adventures in the library. It would be a disservice to even try and recount all of the authors.

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My sister and I used to go to the library frequently when we were tweens and teenagers.

Walking through the stacks was magical, and I could not wait to find my next escape. Of course, the late fees were a bit embarrassing (cough).

Later, in college we used to hang out at the library. It did become a place of odious academic toil at times, but the library was still a great place to spend time with friends and study.

According to Pew, children still use today’s libraries for many of the same reasons:

  • 87% visited the library to borrow books.
  • 55% went to do school work — and 77% of the children ages 12-17 went to the library for this reason.
  • 46% went to borrow DVDs or CDs.
  • 46% went to attend a library event — and 53% of the children under age 12 went to the library for this reason.
  • 37% went to use the internet — and 43% of the children ages 12-17 went to the library for this reason.
  • 37% went to socialize with their friends.

I think Soleil will be the same if we encourage her love of books. And her love of books and technology (she can unlock my phone now) is amazing. It’s something we want to support if that’s where her heart remains.

For a child to continue loving the library of the future, libraries must continue their evolution. So in context, we have to consider what caused libraries to lose traction in the past, and what threats they face in the future.

The Future of Libraries?

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Image by Enoch Pratt Free Library

Thomas Frey wrote about the future of libraries and predicted significant technological impact. He thought technology would change our world from textual to experiential (as many bloggers already predict), and from written back to oral/visual storytelling. Frey thought no particular technology or medium will be longlasting, and he provides significant weight behind his technology disruptor theories.

Yet, of all of his suggestions the one that made the most sense was reengineering libraries as creative spaces for people to ideate, ponder and breathe intellectually.

I loved the cafes in big box book stores. They were great places to get a cup of coffee, work, read and enjoy the ambience of a library like setting. With the closing of Borders and the slow fade of Barnes & Noble out of local communities, we’re losing that bookish cafe.

Granted some independents like Kramer Books in DC have built their business around this ambience, but traveling 30 minutes one-way is just not something I can do for a nice read. Libraries can fill that void and offer a place to sip coffee, read, and enjoy being around other people (without necessarily talking to them). One can only hope.

The Knight Foundation did a study on the future of libraries. In it most libraries see themselves as becoming community gathering place. This is not too far away from Frey’s vision, and it makes sense. As we move to a world with increasingly combined office/residential/retail developments, people need a place to go and just be.

Community centers fill this role, as do private clubs, museums, gyms and parks. But libraries fill a unique void in that group of community resources, the recreational destination of the mind.

But What About the Books?

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Image by Lester Public Library

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration,” said magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was so passionate that he set up thousands of libraries across the world.

Yet the ability of libraries to offer a physical archive of the many things that matter continues to dwindle. Google is digitizing many of the books in existing libraries, and publishers are slowly yielding to demand for eBooks in our intellectual community centers.

The classic iconic memory of a library, a thing of paper and shelves, is leaving our world.

Granted there will always be books in libraries, much like a coffee shop always has coffee, but like that coffee shop the offering will continue to expand. That experience will intertwine digital and physical into an imagination emporium.

And the content, you know those beautiful ideas encapsulated by words, and now film and digital video? Well, it can come with us anywhere in our various technology devices because yes, even libraries offer apps. Yet no place will quite inspire the mind like the library.

Long live the library!

What do you want to share about libraries then, now and in the future?

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  • http://twitter.com/KDillabough Kaarina Dillabough

    I love books, and libraries will always hold a special place in my heart – as do bookstores, especially independent, funky bookstores and second-hand bookstores. For me, wandering the eyes, opening the books, feeling the pages, sensing the story is a wonderful experience. And of course, the years spent in the university library, doing research, also brings back fond (and some not-so-fond;) memories. Books. Stories. Love. Cheers! Kaarina

    • geofflivingston

      I really hope we see a return of the old school independent book store. They are so amazing and now I feel like there is an opportunity to bring them back.

  • Rosy

    Libraries are amazing. Like Carrie (from SATC) said, “I love the smell of old library books.” I always feel inspired to read and explore more. Viva la Library! :) Wonderful post!

    • geofflivingston

      There is something about the ambience of being around all fo those old books, isn’t there?

  • http://amyvernon.net/ AmyVernon

    Libraries are vital, perhaps even moreso now. When I go, I see many people who have no access to computers at home (both children and adults) who use the library to get online. If we have more and more information online, it becomes desperately important to make sure that those who cannot afford the hardware, software and/or connection still have access.

    • geofflivingston

      Definitely one of the least valued but most needed resources that our communities offer. We need to continue providing access. Great points, Amy.

  • http://twitter.com/meagangracie Meagan Buch

    There are not many other non-religious public spaces left these days, books or no books.

    • geofflivingston

      Yeah, it’s unfortunate.

  • http://www.WaxingUnLyrical.com/ Shonali Burke

    I’ve always loved libraries. The smell, the quietness… they’re great places for naps too. :) I hope they never go away, they’re critical to communities.

    For the last few years I’ve volunteered on an annual event my County holds, to raise funds for local organizations, and a couple of years ago, the local library system was the beneficiary. I was very happy about that.

    • geofflivingston

      Hahahahahaha! How many times have I feel asleep in the stacks.

      Sounds like a great fundraiser. Montgomery County has some fantastic libraries, as does Fairfax County and Alexandria.

  • http://twitter.com/Spafloating Pamela Morse

    I have always loved all libraries. I just visited one in Providence where Poe hung out..it is a private lending library..so beautiful.

    • geofflivingston

      Now that is pretty cool. Edgar Allen Poe. It would be great if they had a history of what he took out/read there.

  • http://joshuawilner.com/ Josh

    I love libraries and book stores. There is no way to replicate the joy of walking through the stacks and pulling down a tome or two to flip through.

    I love my Kindle, but it is a different sort of love.

    • geofflivingston

      Yeah, a Kindle is not the same thing. I agree with that. I am referring to mine a lot right now, and while cool, not the same.

  • http://twitter.com/PaulBobnak Paul Bobnak

    I love libraries, too. As a kid, then a teen, I spent many hours at my local library. That so much is available – for free – is just one amazing aspect that I love about them. You can browse, sample, and take home something that can broaden your horizons … or not. But you find out at little risk – to your time only, really.

  • http://twitter.com/PaulBobnak Paul Bobnak

    I love libraries, too. As a kid, then a teen, I spent many hours at my local library. That so much is available – for free – is just one amazing aspect that I love about them. You can browse, sample, and take home something that can broaden your horizons … or not. But you find out at little risk – to your time only, really.

    • geofflivingston

      It’s an incredible resource, and iI think those failures are successes in their own right. We find out ever so slowly.

  • http://twitter.com/profkrg Kenna Griffin

    My kids love the library, which is interesting because I’m not a huge fan. I know this is controversial thing for a professor to say, but I love to own my books. The most fundamental reason is because I mark all over them as I read. The library tends to discourage this.

    • geofflivingston

      Yeah, writing in books is not such a good thing. I can see why owning them is preferred!

  • Guest

    Libraries walk a fine line between being keepers of tradition and followers of progress. A major issue facing libraries is balancing new media (ebooks, online databases) and traditional media (printed books, journals) resources.

    • geofflivingston

      It is the major issue of their existence, for sure. But the central theme should be information regardless of medium.

      • WendyfromSydney

        Agree…but needs to be credible source of information. This is the challenge we face. Especially children who rely on google to help them with their assignments. Teachers should still be guiding students to credible sources – as we have always had with libraries.

  • http://brianvickery.com/ Brian Vickery

    I’ve always loved the library. Growing up “on the wrong side of the tracks”, I didn’t have money to buy books…and I loved reading. So I would just wander the stacks and discover new authors.

    Now I’m in my mid-40s, and I still wander the stacks looking for new authors. Of course, I have my smartphone with me – open to Amazon and GoodReads – so I can check the user reviews on a book before checking it out. Life is too short to read crappy books…if we have the technology to save us.

    I now use Kindle on my iPad for business books because I like to highlight them and have several at my fingertips wherever I go. But I love reading fiction via my local library!

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