On Libraries

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me: I absolutely love the library. Sometimes it strikes me just how much of an incredible social good public libraries are, how lucky we are for such a concept to exist and for it to have lasted so solidly all these years. Think about it – a free service which is available to everyone that provides nearly unlimited entertainment, enrichment, education. (It also blows my mind to think about how many materials would be in the library if their entire inventory was in the building – if no books were taken out, all of them arrayed on the shelves, how packed would the place be!) These days, the entertainment industry is one of the most profitable out there, willing to go to great lengths to make a buck. We are forced to pay ridiculous amounts of money to see a film projected for one time only while surrounded by tons of strangers who may or may not ruin the experience for us. Netflix, Spotify, Youtube, and similar services provide some modicum of entertainment- and media-sharing service at low to no cost, but there are plenty of limitations to the size, quality, depth, and breadth of their catalogs, not to mention the fact that you need an internet connection and a computer to access them in the first place.

The education industry isn’t much better, with colleges and universities (American ones at least) charging their students what equates to a middle class person’s annual salary for a service that our national dialogue insists is necessary to achieving the American dream. Post-secondary education is supposed to enhance critical thinking skills, prepare young adults for careers, and provide them with experiences to launch them into successful lives, but it also leaves many of them in insurmountable debt with unmarketable or impractical degrees in subjects that could have been mastered just as easily for free via self-guided reading. The piece of paper attained at the end of a four year education holds way too much weight in society, in my humble opinion, since it signifies more about a student’s social class standing than their intelligence or knowledge base.

But we can satisfy our needs for plot, story, character, knowledge, theory, and thought at no cost in every community. We can expand our minds on our own time without paying a penny of tuition (think Good Will Hunting).

Without a doubt, I would be flat broke if I had to pay for the countless books I’ve read courtesy of my local library. In considering this, I feel nothing but the deepest gratitude for those brilliant souls who insisted on instituting the public library way back when. This incredibly powerful and valuable social institution allows me, at absolutely no cost, to do the things I love most in the world: to read, to enter another world, to engage with a story, to stir my mind.

In this day and age, if the concept of the library had never previously existed, if it was only being suggested for the first time that we create a free book and media lending service, I am extremely confident that the public library scheme would not be implemented. Our national values are so misplaced, so profit-driven and individualistic, failing to see the vast benefits of providing people with certain basic social goods and services. And this fills me with great sadness (and the desire to give my local library a huge hug) but it also leads me to wonder if the future of the public library truly is in danger. It seems so anathema to what many political leaders value, I fear that it may become a more serious target of their budget-cutting and profit-prioritizing in years to come, especially as forms of media beyond the type so associated with brick and mortar libraries become increasingly valued over paperbacks. These fears may be totally unfounded in my lifetime – I really haven’t done the proper research on how imminent the end of the library may be if it is in fact a true likelihood – but I did some digging and found more than a few articles that piqued my interest on this topic. For further reading, check out the links below.

The Week: What the ‘death of the library’ means for the future of books: An interesting read on the importance of physical libraries as social meeting spaces and the site of helpful, brilliant librarians. Plus a smattering of library history launched off of Tim Worstall’s horrendous recommendation that everyone be given a Kindle with unlimited subscriptions so we can shut libraries down (has he seen the bad publicity e-reading before bed has gotten lately???)

Slate: What will become of the library? – An overview of the burning of the Library of Alexandria and other historical instances of biblioclasm as they relate to our modern-day predicament. Also looks at trends and changes in the form and function of libraries, including the fascinating Snead Bookshelf Company’s design of library shelving in which the shelves themselves are load-bearing such that their removal would literally compromise the structure of library buildings.

Knight Foundation: Future of Libraries – Interviews with library directors regarding how they are transforming their services to fit the needs of the modern world and what they envision the future role of libraries will become.

Go to Hellman: Are public libraries in a death spiral? – In response to library budget cuts and the suggestion of limiting library hours in 2010, a fellow blogger argues for enhancing the service and programming aspect of the local library, an aspect of the brick and mortar institution that online resources cannot replace.

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