Yesterday I met a former trustee of a small town public library who lamented that her selectmen didn’t see why libraries are still relevant in today’s world. I mentioned in this August post Miami’s mayor, who thinks libraries are becoming obsolete. Even the venerable New York Public Library system (which is in fact three systems) has been cut $65 million since the financial crisis of 2008, according to a recent New York Times article.
And yet, the same article describes libraries as the “point of integration” for immigrants. We are the place where many English learners meet with their tutors, pick up materials appropriate to their reading levels, and access computers in order to fill out government “paperwork” (online forms, in most cases), apply for jobs, and communicate with their children’s teachers. We introduce them to American culture, history, and democracy.
Libraries provide them a welcoming, age-appropriate place for their children to improve their own language skills. We read stories with and check out materials to children whose families — whether immigrants or lifelong citizens — cannot afford their own books, and provide early literacy and parenting information to families. We give teenagers a free, safe place to hang out, use computers, and do homework.
The federal government called on public libraries to help provide Affordable Care Act information, just as we’ve long helped seniors researching medicare options. We are the only location in many communities where people can get income tax forms. We help voters learn about candidates and election issues by providing free access to newspapers of record. Libraries are one of few options for homeless people seeking to stay warm until shelters open. We’re also one of the only places in American communities with both free WiFi and free computer and printer use.
Public library programs across America teach our citizens how to use new technologies, write a resume and look for a job, make a budget, plan for elder and end-of-life care, and do research on everything from consumer issues to ancestry. We provide free recreation in the form of reading materials and discussion groups, movies, music, museum passes, and programs (presentations, concerts, forums, etc.) on a plethora of cultural and educational topics. Some public libraries offer “maker” space to improve science and technology literacy, others host craft, gardening, astronomy, or other life-long learning groups.
In short, libraries are one of the most vibrant public institutions around, providing social, civic, educational, and cultural services in communities of all sizes and demographics at relatively low cost, particularly when compared to what those services would cost in the private sector. Libraries contribute to a better educated and informed population — and evidence shows that engaged minds make for healthier people, so we’re even contributing to the well-being of our communities. We’re also one of the only cradle-to-grave public services in America — no matter your age, your library has something for you.
The next time someone suggests libraries are unnecessary or outdated, or one reads anymore, question those assumptions and cite evidence to the contrary. (For example, recent studies by the Pew Research Center confirm that 78% of Americans over 16 read and a sizable majority of Americans think libraries are important.) Then take the person to the library and show him or her what goes on. Walk around the neighborhood and notice how library visitors impact the local economy by shopping, dining, and visiting other nearby sites. Talk to the people who depend on library services. And then question the questioner: how can you imagine NOT needing libraries? How would our community pay for and provide all these services without libraries?
I’m convinced that most who suggest libraries are unnecessary probably spend little, if any, time in their local library. If they did they better understand the full scope of services a library provides.
Also, most arguments against libraries simply regurgitate the trite summary that books are over and, by extension, places with books must also be over. It’s an argument based on a flawed assumption.
Nice summary. You’re quite right – we need to challenge these assumptions and use evidence to back it up. It seems incredible that people can actually think libraries are irrelevant but many people still think all we do is lend out books.