The Library Is Dead. Long Live the Library!

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.

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?

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?

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?