[README] Is the Public Library Obsolete?

Category: Reference

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 (and paper books) 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?

The Netscape Navigator web browser was released in 1994, bringing multimedia content and easy access to a world of knowledge to non-technical users. It wasn't long before pundits predicted the death of the library.

Despite what surveys say about decreasing library usage, libraries’ in-house usage statistics say just the opposite. In fact, public libraries are busier than ever; the per capita number of visits to libraries has increased 23% from 1994 to the present, and the number of items checked out annually increased by the same percentage.

According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, there are slightly more public libraries now; their numbers have inched up from 8,921 in 1994 to 9,216 in 2017 (the most recent survey). 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.

Is the Library Obsolete?

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.

The Denver Public Library, for example, 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. A friend who lives in Denver tells me that the place is packed from opening to close, every day. All are welcome, including the homeless with backpacks the size of mini-fridges. 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. I live in a rural town in New York state, and my local library is buzzing with activity. In addition to physical books and videos, there are computer classes, music events, and various club meetings. Patrons can "borrow" digital items as well. In my article Who Needs Netflix When You Have a Library Card?, I described the Kanopy service, which provides library members with free streaming access to movies and TV shows.

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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This article was posted by on 20 Jun 2019


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Most recent comments on "[README] Is the Public Library Obsolete?"

(See all 34 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

FrancesMC
20 Jun 2019

I live in Toronto. Our library has 100 branches and is thriving with all the bells and whistles that you describe. I don't use it as much as I once did because I find it hard to get out but I use it online a lot. One important thing it does is to provide computers for people who don't have one.


Posted by:

Gramps
20 Jun 2019

As an avid internet user, I make use of lots of the 'free' information available on web, and I often get annoyed by media behind paywalls. However, I do recognize that somebody has to pay for all that 'free' stuff, so I am not upset by those that insist on getting compensated for their work.
Unfortunately, I do not have the means to subscribe to all the media I would like to enjoy, so my solution is to visit our library to enjoy all those subscriptions that the library pays for. The publishers and authors get compensated, the library gets used, and I get to read and feel the real publications guilt free. Win-win for all!


Posted by:

Annette N
20 Jun 2019

As a former librarian, I am so glad to see that you are promoting the library as a vital place. Libraries are places we need and most importantly, libraries are places that people love.


Posted by:

Ken B
20 Jun 2019

Bookstores haven't disappeared yet either. :-|


Posted by:

BobD
20 Jun 2019

I prop up a book behind my breakfast. Ditto snacks, lunch, and supper. Makes for easy reading. I'm a snob, so I don't bother with fiction, except for my 60-year-old science fiction magazines, which I am re-reading before selling. The nonfiction from the library has given me an education almost as good as all my schooling -- maybe better, being up-to-date and honest.


Posted by:

BobD
20 Jun 2019

We need Congressional appropriations for libraries, big ones. 70% federal block-grant funding, 30% local.


Posted by:

Warren Ngo
20 Jun 2019

The Edmonton Public Library in Edmonton, Alberta Canada is thriving and will soon move into newly renovated facilities. Our Library was the first in Canada to win top honours, Library of the Year, from the Cengage Learning and Library Journal Magazine, in 2014


Posted by:

MC rogers
20 Jun 2019

I live in a state capital that has an excellent public library. However, because of the state's finances I am concerned that the library will be closed. I use the facilities weekly and it is usually packed. All the branches have been shuttered. It would be shameful, but not surprising, if the main branch was closed to make way for parking or a green space.


Posted by:

JIM REICKER
20 Jun 2019

Governments don't like libraries because they refuse to cave in to demands to not hold or circulate certain controversial books.

Secondly, collections, reference material and tools etc are, in today's jargon, curated ie the quality, value has been assessed. Librarians can guide patrons to reliable sources of info.


Posted by:

thom r
20 Jun 2019

The ones that want to close libraries are the same ones that want to cut social security,medicare,and healthcare.
I'll leave it to you to figure out which ones they are.


Posted by:

Maura K
20 Jun 2019

I use my library more than ever now. Thanks to the Mid Hudson Library System, my library now encompasses many libraries scattered across several counties. No need to buy books - I can order up almost everything I want through them. Same goes for movies, music, magazines, ebooks, research items....


Posted by:

Lew
20 Jun 2019

I read 2 books a week from my public
Library. I hope they
Never close. My fire
Is the second tablet
I have gone through..Thank you...


Posted by:

Brian B
20 Jun 2019

Unfortunately, "the vast amount of information available through the Internet" is usually opinion and not fact, so research can be compromised. I do most of my research in the reference section of my public library.

I do, however, like the all round convenience of carrying hundreds of books in the palm of my hand. The only inconvenience of reading ebooks I find, is when I want to turn back a few pages to check on something that has gone before, like the map inside the front cover being referred to.


Posted by:

Connie
20 Jun 2019

I realize the free library card I have is paid for via yearly property taxes, but this hasn't stopped me from enjoying the library more than ever before. Being a senior on a fixed income, I cannot afford to buy books or movies anymore, so knowing my library has anything I want has made me a happy camper. I have a Kindle, but nothing beats holding a book in my hands. I can read magazines, newspapers from all over the country - and abroad, all from the comfort of my local library. If I don't like the book or movie I checked out? I just take it back for something else. No money lost.


Posted by:

artm
21 Jun 2019

EBooks and reading lots of material off of the screen give me headaches. Give me a book any time. I can read it anywhere and without INet access. Local library here is great. Lots of programs, art shows, live music, radio plays and lectures. It's not going anywhere but moves with the times.


Posted by:

Jay R
21 Jun 2019

Many libraries have programs and activities for young grandchildren. Printed books are a lot harder to edit than internet stuff. My romance with books has gone on for decades. There's no chance of me divorcing my partner.


Posted by:

Leah
21 Jun 2019

I go to the library usually once a week. I do not check out printed books like I used to as I have an ereader. I do check out Kindle books from the library. The library is also my biggest source of audiobooks, whether in the form of disks I check out or download via OverDrive. I also check out movies. I go to the library more now than ever.

I love my local library.


Posted by:

Emily Booth
21 Jun 2019

I've been using the library since I was a child and got my first library card. I've used it thru elementary, high school and college. I've used it in adulthood. And, now as a retiree, I use it even more. In addition to taking books, DVDs and CDs out, I attend a non-fiction book club regularly. I've attended movies and lectures. I met with a Chinese grad student to tutor her in English at a public library. The public library is a necessary part of life no matter who you are.


Posted by:

Sara
21 Jun 2019

I'm another one of those bookworms who love having real books, magazines & newspapers in my hand. I've been using libraries since I got my first children's library card as a child. My public library is in a working-class city where there have been cuts in the past because of budget deficits. However, the library continues to be part of the 21st century, offering most of the electronic bells and whistles in place in wealthier communities. And my nextdoor working-class city city just opened a fabulous state-of-the art new library a few minutes from my house which is the closest one open every day including Sunday. I also am one of those who goes to the library every week. I find it sometimes difficult to read stuff on screens, whether it be my 24-inch monitor, my cell phone, my laptop, or my tablets, all of which get regular use, but nothing beats having a book in my hand, whether it be a regency romance or a treatise on capitalist economics. While you shouldn't let me loose in a bookstore (I have way too many books) I save quite a bit of money, getting books that I know I will only read once from the library and/or "auditioning" books that I end up buying. I love both of the libraries that I patronize &can't begin to imagine what life would be like for me and thousands of other folks should they close.


Posted by:

Richard Dengrove
23 Jun 2019

I spent 30 years as the librarian for my agency. While many of the questions I answered could have been answered by a public library, for some, I had a reputation for being a magician. The internet did not stop that. In searching Google, people still have to know where to look. Nonetheless, the powers that be do not have a high opinion of librarians or libraries. We are little old ladies dealing in children's books as far as they are concerned.


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