Last week the Slate article “What Will Become of the Library” by Michael Agresta burned up bookish social media circles. Much of what Agresta discusses I’ve written about on Nocturnal Librarian as well; he even mentions “book mountain” in the Netherlands.
He posits that bookless libraries are “almost inevitable” and goes over all the ways libraries are “reinventing” themselves. He covers maker spaces and innovation stations, and the “interventionist” role public libraries have in serving the “dispossessed of the digital age” – namely the homeless. And like so many others he asks whether “patching the gaps of the fraying social safety net” is or should be libraries’ role. (Agresta wasn’t alone on that topic last week — several newspapers covered recent ordinances prohibiting bathing, anti-social behavior, and sleeping in libraries across the country. I can report that in my library’s case, very few homeless patrons actually engage in those activities. A few hard cases make bad law, and always have, but I digress).
Having recently read Alfie Kohn’s excellent book The Myth of the Spoiled Child, I’ve become hyper-aware of how some media outlets are a sort of echo chamber of unsupported theories. I don’t know about your public library, but mine is nowhere near, now or in the foreseeable future, becoming a bookless downloadable maker space. There are a few exceptions, but I would guess, having chatted with a broad cross-section of my fellow public librarians at PLA 2014 last month, that most American libraries are much as they were a generation or two ago, albeit with more technology for both staff and patrons and new material on their shelves.
While journalists crow about our impending demise, we are frequently welcoming more people than ever, and not just the homeless; we serve, as we always have, every demographic, rich and poor, old and young, recent immigrant and Mayflower descendant. Are some libraries experiencing lack of growth? Yes. Is that caused by the coming digital smiting of traditional library services? A classic error of assuming causation. Sure, some libraries are losing patrons, for any of the reasons any service oriented business loses “market share,” like poor management or inadequate marketing.
People do visit their libraries for social interaction, as Agresta notes, but they aren’t all printing 3D gadgets or collaborating in a computer lab. Lots of people are attending lectures and classes, story times and book discussions just as they always have, and checking out physical books. Very few library patrons (or any other readers) choose ebooks exculsively — just 4%, according to the Pew Research Center. Many folks still want a quiet space to read or study, and we have that too, just as we always have.
Why the endless chatter about how different we are and how much we’ll have to keep changing when we are in fact, in cities and towns across America, essentially the same? I will allow that I am speculating as well, but I do have the benefit of a network of professionals whose anecdotal evidence indicates that issuing library cards, lending materials, providing information, recommending good books, and putting on programs are still the bulk of their daily work. Just as they were when my grandmother was a librarian. Pew notes that the presence of a library (in the traditional sense I’ve described) is highly valued across generations all over America. Will some communities choose new and different library services? Sure, but I’d bet even those still check out books, every day.
As for Agresta’s “book-oriented library, where it survives in defiance of the digital shift, tends to take on the aspect of a temple for this sort of focused, old-fashioned study and contemplation?” My reaction ranges from “get over yourself ” to “temple, schmemple.” Come browse our romance novels, our large print westerns, our People Magazine and Mother Earth News, our dystopian YA, zombie and horror paperbacks, our Value Line and Cat Fancy and cozy mysteries and chicklit and Amish fiction and inspirational memoirs, our self-help and car repair guides, our cookbooks and comics, and DIY, and then we’ll talk.
Now hear this: Real people, of all kinds, read all kinds of stuff they checked out at their local public libraries. It’s not a catchy lede, but it’s reality.