[READ] Are Public Libraries Obsolete?

Category: Reference

State and local governments are under pressure to cut every unnecessary expense they can, even funding to public libraries. With the vast amount of information available through the Internet, most of it free, it seems that libraries are superfluous relics of a long-gone, offline era. Indeed, Americans report in surveys that they are using libraries less and less. But is that really accurate? Read on...

Why Haven’t Libraries Died Yet?

Libraries’ in-house usage statistics say just the opposite of those surveys. In fact, public libraries are busier than ever; the per capita number of visits to libraries increased 23% from 1994 to 2012, and the number of items checked out annually increased by 23%.

Also, there are slightly more public libraries now; their numbers have inched up from 8,921 in 1994 to 9,082 in 2012 (a gain of 2.14 percent). The only major statistic that decreased was “number of questions asked of librarians,” which declined 18%. The Internet, it seems, is taking a load off library staff.

But people want libraries to evolve. The Pew Research Center’s surveys indicate that the American public wants public libraries to support local education; serve special constituents such as veterans, active-duty military personnel and immigrants; help local businesses, job seekers and those upgrading their work skills; and embrace new technologies such as 3-D printers and provide services to help patrons learn about high-tech gadgetry.

Is the Library Obsolete?

Dave, a friend of mine in Denver reports that the Denver Public Library is doing a fantastic job of meeting these expectations:

“The entire third floor of Denver's main library is a "Community Technology Center" that sports over 100 networked terminals. Specialized terminals for video calls are also available, along with scanners, color laser printers, and other peripherals. Black and white prints are a dime, color laser prints $0.50.

“A WiFi lounge has comfy armchairs. A dozen classrooms constantly host free lessons in Office, Web design, eBay marketing, job-hunting, and other skills.

The Library Evolves

“Two other floors of the 7-story building harbor art galleries open to the public at no charge. They have an ever-changing array of local artists. All are welcome, including the homeless with backpacks the size of mini-fridges. The place is packed from opening to close, every day. Yet surprisingly, the restrooms are immaculate and the security guards are friendly but bored.

If you're looking for free ebooks, see my article Get Your Free eBooks Here and learn how to access millions of free books in digital format.

WorldCat connects you to more than 10,000 libraries worldwide. You can search many libraries at once for an item and then locate it in a library nearby. If your local library permits remote checkout of an item, you can use WorldCat to check out a book, music CD or video. Some digital items (like audiobooks) can be directly viewed or downloaded.

Denver Public Library Community Technology Center

[ Denver Public Library Community Technology Center (photo taken after hours to protect patron privacy) ]

It’s not just big-city central libraries that offer such hospitality, reports Dave, who hitch-hiked through the Southwest with his laptop from 2010 to 2013. In nearly-abandoned Arizona mining towns, he could count on a local library for free Internet, even when the library was closed.

“They just took my driver’s license data and gave me login credentials that worked from a picnic bench outside,” he says.

Why isn’t the Internet killing public libraries, as many predicted? Simply because 65% of Americans age 16 and over say that closing their public libraries would have “a major impact” on their communities that they emphatically do not want. Government may shortchange libraries, shortening hours and reducing staff and purchasing budgets, but it won’t get away with doing away with libraries.

How are the public libraries in your area? What are they doing to remain relevant and essential in the digital age? What services do you want them to offer, and how are you willing to pay for them? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "[READ] Are Public Libraries Obsolete?"

(See all 49 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

03 May 2016

I used to love going to the libraries around here... there are some very good ones in my region. There is something about reading in that environment, especially reading for studying purposes, that just makes for a more efficient reading experience--in my opinion, of course. The reason I quit going is because the environment changed for the worse. The cellphone era allowed for rude, inconsiderate people to ruin it (along with theaters and other places), and library staff wouldn't do anything about it. Needless to say, peace and quiet is a prerequisite to reading comprehension and/or enjoyment, so I simply quit going. So the main service I would prefer that they offer is to simply kick out the yappers, especially the cellphone variety... lol.

Posted by:

03 May 2016

In NYC, every library is jammed with minority striver kids studying in a quiet place where they have WiFi and help from librarians. I can't think of a safer place for them to go. The atmosphere is electric.

Libraries have free access to paywalled services such as JSTOR.

We can't do without them.

Posted by:

03 May 2016

My city's public library is an attractive, inviting place, with many kinds of services and documents EXCEPT non-fiction books. This is a frustrating limitation, since it, effectively, is a site for recreational reading (above all) and Internet and AV usage. The duty to inform the public that a good non-fiction monographic collection provides is a duty that this local library SHIRKS.

Posted by:

04 May 2016

I am a cataloger at a major university library in California. We are part of a library system with 3 other universities as well as the county public libraries and city public libraries. This cooperative organization is happening in many places around the country. While I work on cataloging a hundred or so physical items per month, I also perform metadata operations on 1000s or tens of 1000s of items in networked/licensed content every month (so now I'm a cataloger and learning to be a metadata specialist). Since the 1980s library catalogs have been translated from paper cards to electronic databases, essentially as flat files equivalent to the single card. In the last several years though, libraries nationwide have been converting to cataloging in linked data structures using a new cataloging standard called Resource Description & Access. This is opening library research in much the same way that shopping at your local mall is expanded by shopping online. Information science has been exploding in the library world and shows no signs of slowing down. I'm close to retiring now, but still wondering about going back to school to continue studying the rapidly shifting landscape of information services offered by libraries.

Posted by:

04 May 2016

I think that this is the first of Bob's articles that there has been complete agreement amongst respondents, and I also agree that public libraries are great and should be supported. Don't let the penny pinching politicians and bureaucrats destroy a great community resource.

Posted by:

04 May 2016

I was in demand as a volunteer at our county libraries, assisting patrons by helping them with their computer and software questions.

If you read Bob Rankin (and you do), you should consider volunteering at YOUR library.

Posted by:

Mary S.
04 May 2016

The Chicago Public Library is also keeping up with technology. As with other libraries, ebooks, audiobooks and movies are available on-line 24 hours a day.

Free Wi-Fi and computers are available at the libraries. DVDs, CDs and players in addition to traditional materials are also available. Some branches have 3-D printers for public use. Another personal favorite are the knitting machines available at the main branch. The staff are trained to help patrons with the new technology.

Libraries have meeting rooms available to groups. They are official warming shelters in the winter and cooling shelters in the summer.

The part of my tax bill that goes to libraries is one of the few I don't mind paying!

Posted by:

Sujit Sengupta
04 May 2016

I am a retired librarian, residing at a small town in India. I regret to say that during my service, I have hardly seen a politician who has clout, favours propagation of the concepts of library movements. Now, I am afraid, it is still so everywhere.

Posted by:

04 May 2016

Toronto is now the fourth largest city in North America (after Mexico City, NY and LA) The event was celebrated by the opening of the 100th active branch. Since I think NY and LA have scattered, freestanding regional libraries Toronto also has the lead in circulation and offers almost all of the features listed in all of these comments, plus a few of its own. Check it out!

Posted by:

04 May 2016

"Backpacks the size of fridges". They forgot to mention the aroma. There are so many homeless people these days, the local library is the default homeless shelter. They get out of the rain and cold and can bathe in the wash basins. So your tax dollars aren't wasted after all.

On a positive note, if you take your kids to the library, you can point out the homeless people and tell them if they don't study, develop good habits, etc. they will end up like them. Good motivation.

Posted by:

04 May 2016

Broward County Florida public libraries are definitely not dead.

I use mine for online classes, ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, and videos for my android devices, and even many print books each week.

Posted by:

04 May 2016

I think as libraries have taken on a number of functions that have little to do with the basic concept of borrowing books and a place to acquire knowledge from its reference section.

I therefore think they should no longer be called 'libraries'. They should be known as 'Information Centers' or even better simply 'info centers'.

Posted by:

05 May 2016

Just got back from my State Library in the centre of the city. Every day there is a large crowd of uni students and the general public waiting to get in when the door open at 10 am. Far from obsolete, this library is thriving and I happily travel up to an hour each way on public transport to use it. smile emoticon

Posted by:

Beverly Chapin
05 May 2016

Even our small Vermont village had a library, presided over by our elementary teacher in the 1930's and on for many years. I spent many hours there both reading as well as borrowing books. The high school in neighboring larger town had a separate library, and now many years later husband and I are still regular library patrons. He spends many hours reading and I often borrow CD & DVD materials as well as books. Even when trying life on the road in an RV we were able to use an occasional library. Settled first in Greenwood County, SC, and now Union County, NC, we find county library systems with several branches, good book selections, special children's and genealogical sections, computer rooms, etc, and when we can no longer drive they will send the mobile unit. Libraries go back into ancient times but today are accessible to all, not just the upper classes. As important a resource as schools, let's support our Public Libraries, keep the name and use them often.

Posted by:

05 May 2016

Our local libraries are definitely not dead. They have been renamed "Idea Exchange" which at this point describes the function a bit better than just "library".

Posted by:

Darcetha Manning
05 May 2016

The main public library in Fort Smith Arkansas is always busy. Also, the public library in Van Buren, Arkansas stays busy. Public libraries are a mainstay for communities, because you will always have people, who are unable to afford internet access or a computer at home.

Posted by:

Kenneth Heikkila
07 May 2016

We are fortunate in our small town of Goldendale, WA (pop.3407 as of last census) to not only have a Carnegie Library, but to have it be a member of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system. I am not aware of any feature of big city libraries that we can't access; music downloads, ebooks, videos, art & not only the combined resources of at least 15 locations in 3 counties, but a member of the World Library with 2 billion items shared between 10,000 libraries. Oh yeah and the wi-fi is available inside & out with kids and adults outside even on Sundays, the only day the library is closed since a brief decision a couple of years back to decrease hours was loudly protested by all the communities involved and the money to keep historic hours was raised.

Posted by:

Pat C.
25 May 2016

I have been a pest to the librarians here since my momma taught me to read and got me my first library card. I'll find a book that captures me and hide in a corner until they chase me out. "We're closing and you have to leave." (Dammit!)I'm not rich nor is my family but we support the Jefferson County Public Library all we can. It's something wonderful. Anybody can walk in, pick out a book, find a comfy chair and READ. Computer access, timed but free, the latest magazines, major papers, latest from your favorite writers and all kind of stuff you would not expect. There's a section dedicated to ancestors/family and it's quite extensive. All sorts of wonderful astounding and very interesting stuff and all you gotta do is go there and Do It.
Once again, I got lost somewhere down the line.

Posted by:

06 Feb 2018

I live in Mackay, Australia, it's in North Queensland and Libraries are just as important and well used here with audio books and DVD's being very popular as well as the internet and research tools. There is also a Local History section which is interesting as well.

Long live the Library!

Posted by:

steven syron
31 Oct 2018

As should be public transportation....public libraries should be self-supporting. Those that use should pay. I have no need for either (never have) and resent being forced to pay for them.

Whats so bad about users funding that which they use ???

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