Do We Still Need Libraries?

Posted by on Oct 6, 2014 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

I used to do library reach here, at the New York Public Library. Loved it. There's something about great architecture combined with books--transformative.

I used to do library research here, at the New York Public Library. Loved it. There’s something about great architecture combined with books–transformative.

Rural Maine libraries on borrowed time. Libraries that survive on fundraisers, donations, and grants–or that are closing.

Stories like this make me weep. But then I think–I admit it. I don’t spend as much time in libraries as I used to.

Well, I just don’t. A lot of the research material I need is available online. A few keystrokes and I can get it, without leaving my desk. And like a lot of people in the publishing business, I am buried under books. I rarely need to go and pick up a paperback to while away the time. I’m too busy cowering guiltily away from the tomes piled up under my coffee table and on my nightstand.

So do we need libraries anymore? Let me think. What do libraries provide that I can’t get at home?

Access. Not every person, especially not every child, has a computer with high-speed internet. Libraries used to the the only place it was easy to find reference books, encyclopedias, dictionaries–the kind of book you didn’t need every day, but when you needed them, you needed them. Now a lot of that stuff is available electronically, and libraries are there to make sure we are all able to get it–not just those of us who can afford expensive gadgets. Libraries are still about the democratization of information, without which a democracy is doomed.

Community. I see them. Sitting there. Staring at a screen, flipping through a magazine, curled up on a beanbag chair with a book. READERS. Reading is a solitary pursuit, but when I go into a library, I’m surrounded by evidence that I am not the only person who does it. Granted, some of these readers look a little odd, and some of them seem to be carrying on conversations with invisible table mates, and they aren’t all the kind of people I want to invite home for a cup of tea. I don’t like all of them. I don’t like all of their books. It doesn’t matter. They are fellow members of my tribe, people immersed in words and ideas. Libraries build that community–and we readers can’t do without it.

Expertise. It’s too easy to discount this today. We can shop for any book we want online; we can browse through a million websites; we have a world of literature at our digital fingertips. But librarians still know things the rest of us don’t. The wider and wilder the world of information and literature grows, the more we need guides who have read the maps and can point out the signposts.

Choice. Shelves and shelves of books spread out all around us. We don’t have to read the latest bestseller or the book that just got the hot review or the one our mother-in-law gave us for Christmas. We can look at all the possibilities on the shelves, and we can choose. How especially wonderful this is for children, who can break out from the books their parents have picked for them (“Mom. Nothing about India or adoption,” my six-year-old said sternly to me the other day. Rats. She’s on to me.) and read what catches their eyes and calls to their hearts.

And those things are worth $22.24 per taxpayer per year, or about 6 cents a day–which is what it costs per resident to keep the library in Mexico, Maine, open. A bargain.

One Comment

  1. My library is ssouped to be ordering it, but I couldn’t wait any longer so I bought a couple copies for my daughter and my nephews. My daughter loves the snowman inside the house spread. She always laughs and laughs that a snowman would come inside to play. Then we have to make imaginary snowmen (since it’s too hot in Texas to make snowmen at all). Thanks for inspiring imagination in my daughter.-Jed

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