A non-librarian friend of mine (ooh, name drop much? :)) shared an article, “A Country Without Libraries,” from the New York Review of Books, in her Google Reader feed. I started to write my long comment there, but then I thought “Why else do I have a blog?”
While I agree with the author that public libraries are a necessity for democracy, I sort of hated the second half of his article. I would argue that wandering from subject to subject, learning, is far easier on Wikipedia than in library stacks, and to put forth “There are lots of books!” as the value proposition for a public library is to ensure that more of them close down. (I mean, sure, NY Review of Books would have a pro-book bias, and, of course, there is value to library-as-book-storage. But it’s not our primary value, as the article seems to imply.)
Libraries are important as centers of our communities, safe places for public discourse and information sharing, where anyone can ask any question and get it answered accurately, without bias, and for free–the power of this may be non-obvious, but where else can you go and have that expectation? Information usually has a price, these days. Further, libraries are an important way to bridge the digital divide, both in terms of computer knowledge/ability AND in terms of access; they offer computer classes, answer on-the-spot computer questions (as best they can), and let people access the internet for free. And, yes, the curated knowledge at the library is definitely important (many of my colleagues would list it above the digital divide issue!)—some of it is even in the form of books—but so much of that knowledge is moving to databases, ebooks, and websites that to denigrate the value of digital data is to suggest that libraries are decreasing in value as time goes on, when that is definitely not the case.
We’re seeing even more usage, in this economy, because people can’t afford internet bills, or they need help filling in online job applications, or they want to build up their computer skills, or they need to cut back on spending (so they borrow books, tools, or whatever other things the library might lend!). Tax forms aren’t being mailed out, anymore, so people get them at the library. Businesses charge for meeting spaces, so people use the library. Google’s results are tending more toward eHow and Yahoo! Answers, so people are asking their questions at the library.* Parents want to find community and enrichment for their young children, so they attend storytime and other library programs. Teens need a safe place to go after school, where they can spend time with other teens, and many libraries oblige by having teen-specific spaces, with graphic novels and programs that young adults would find interesting.
Very little of libraries’ value to our society is tied directly to those books sitting on the shelves. We do so many other things! Why do people keep trying to bring it back to the books?
*At least, I hope so. Yahoo! Answers is terrible, and eHow, while largely pretty good, can get a bit touch-and-go.