The Death of Libraries

Photo courtesy of Parents Coalition of Montgomery County, MD.

Many of us take libraries for granted.  We think they always will be there.  Always.  Whether we frequent them or not, whether we support them or not, whether we defend them or not, libraries always will be there. Would that it were certain; would that it were a birthright, a guarantee.  But it’s not.

When I was a kid, I went to the library fairly often, ostensibly to study but in reality to meet my friends and goof off.  I didn’t know then, or maybe I knew but didn’t really grasp, that my community provided the library as a service, in the hope that its patrons would use it as a learning resource.  Back then, I didn’t realize the extent to which, in my house, the library was far more important than the church could ever be.  It was a place to explore ideas, a place where knowledge grew, an important birthplace of wisdom.

I’m sure my parents knew I often wasn’t using the library in the way it was intended.  But I suspect they reasoned that, by giving me proximity to knowledge and ideas and intellectual stimulation and by seeing how others used the library as a resource, at least a bit of it would rub off.  I hope it did.  I think it did.  Now, many years later, as I watch libraries struggle to survive, I realize libraries are, to many people, the “third place” with which I’ve become so enamored.

Libraries are welcoming places.  Everyone in a library is on equal footing.  Financial and social standing are irrelevant in libraries.  Race and ethnicity are ignored in libraries. It doesn’t matter whether libraries are evolving into internet resource centers with a few books thrown in for good measure.  All that matters is this: libraries are places in which communities demonstrate the extent to which they care.  They care about knowledge.  They care that people in the community have a place to go, a place where they are an integral part of the community.  They care enough to say, without saying it aloud, “you don’t need money to be important here…you just need curiosity.”

But I’m afraid libraries are dying.  Many people question the need for libraries, now that information is so readily accessible online.  Why invest in paper and the space needed to store it when the information is available 24/7 via computer?  Why pay librarians to babysit kids when nanny-cams are so much cheaper?  My answer is this: libraries are good investments because they foster curiosity and community and they reward, in tangible and intangible ways, intellectual exploration.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a book or a keyboard and a screen; what matters is that it’s an environment that shows the community supports curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge.

Communities sacrifice libraries because they are too easy to sacrifice.  In the most well-to-do communities, libraries are sacrificed to affluence.  People don’t need libraries to get access to books; they can buy what they want at Barnes & Noble or download the latest best-seller to their Kindles.  But they are sacrificing community!  They are rewarding the isolation that accompanies that sought-after affluence.  And in poor communities, libraries are sacrificed to streets and police and fire protection; when affluence is held at bay by people with iPads, choices must be made.

I have no answers.  I only hope the collective “we” wakes up soon enough to realize that killing libraries is murder by suicide.  When we become sufficiently alone, communicating only through the internet, maybe our longing for human contact will burst forth in such a way as to save institutions like libraries from death.

It’s coincidental that, as I was writing this, I got a notice from my nearby library branch that a book I’d requested, Celebrating the Third Place : Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities, has come in an is ready for me to pick up. In view of what I’ve just written, when I pick up the book, I think I’ll stay awhile at the library and soak in the environment.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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4 Responses to The Death of Libraries

  1. Juan, there’s something about books–the way they feel, their smell, and their weight in one’s hands–that make them magical for me. Geraldine, it sounds like the Chicago library system has powerful advocates who ensure it will be around for a while. Your obit SHOULD include your love affair with libraries! But it should wait for quite some time to be written, you know?

  2. I still miss the old card catalogues – and the wonderful due date cards that were reused. I used to wonder about who had taken the book out before. One of my favorite college memories at Edgewood, a school of 600 in the middle of Madison, WI, was sitting in a wonderful comfortable chair in one of the small alcoves in our tiny library, and reading a book. I’m rather proud of holding library cards for over 60 years, with never a late return. I want that in my obit.

  3. jserolf says:

    Well, they’re dying in 2 and 4 year colleges. Strangely, I brought this up in a meeting with the Dean & Faculty only yesterday when she reminded us of Administration’s new initiative — that as teachers we “must promote the support center.” You see, we don’t refer to it as a library anymore;it’s called a Student Support Center. I think our campus library has maybe 6 aisles of books, maybe less. I said, “I’ve got more books than our library does.”
    I suppose I can appreciate the efficiency of databases and their search engines — from EBSCO to JSTOR, but something is wrong when the physical presence of books is missing: memories of days or nights when I simply and physically wandered through them.
    I suppose I can appreciate the efficiency of databases and their search engines — from EBSCO to JSTOR, but books … touching them, turning to pages at random, smelling them. I could go on about this!

  4. I’ve read Great Good Places; you’ll enjoy it. We’ve had staff cutbacks and shorter hours in the Chicago Public Library system, but they’ve been restored due to popular demand. The transportation budget was cut so it takes longer for a requested book to arrive. The computers are busy and there are downloadable options, and music on DVD and CDs. There’s a media center at the main library that has high end computers, monitors and software. It’s a large space for teens and includes a professional recording booth and comfortable couches for kids to relax and talk. The space is provided by the city and the equipment by the MacArthur Foundation.

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