Why Libraries Are Even More Vital Than They Were Before the Digital Age

The following is an excerpt from John Palfrey's new book BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic Books, 2015).  Reprinted here with permission.


New Wars, Familiar Stories

Libraries are at risk because we have forgotten how essential they are. In the era of Google and Amazon, those with means can access information with greater ease and speed than ever before. As a consequence, in cities and towns across the world the same debate rages each year when budget time rolls around: What’s the purpose of a library in a digital age? Put more harshly, why should we spend tax dollars, in tough economic times, on a library when our readers can instantly get so much of what they need and want from the Internet? As the bulk of funding for police, fire departments, and schools—all necessary services—has become the responsibility of state and local governments, municipal leaders have been forced to ask a question that library supporters aren’t prepared to answer: are libraries necessary?

We keep having this debate because we have a very simplistic and skewed idea of why libraries matter. For most of us, libraries are good for one thing: getting information. But most information today can be readily accessed in digital form, through computers or smartphones. How many times recently have you had a debate with a friend, only to resolve the dispute within seconds simply by pulling out a mobile device and looking up the answer? Most of the information that we need in our day-to-day lives can now be found in both analog (meaning “physical”) form and digital form. Most of the time, the digital variants can be accessed by anyone, easily and quickly, from anywhere, using a mobile device. Acquiring the physical variants often requires more effort—an actual trip to the library, for instance.

The point is not that books, magazines, and DVDs are dead—far from it. At places such as the redesigned Boston Public Library, popular publications and media materials in physical form circulate rapidly from prominent spaces close to the building’s entrance. The point is that people’s information habits have undergone a sea change—a major shift toward the digital. Libraries are trying to serve a wide range of patrons at many different points along an “adoption curve,” with all-print at one end and all-digital at the other. A related shift is also under way: libraries must increasingly compete with commercial establishments that offer free wireless Internet access and a place to gather, such as Starbucks. In the midst of all this change, libraries of all sizes and types are forced to make the case for their own relevance. The problem is that libraries need to provide both physical materials and spaces as well as state-of-the-art digital access and services.

Our views about what libraries offer are firmly entrenched, which makes the task before library supporters even harder. If most knowledge is accessible in digital formats, on devices that can be carried anywhere, what is the purpose of a traditional library collection of books, journals, magazines, movies, and music? If the Internet is the primary access point for this information, what is the purpose of preserving physical spaces where people can come to find it? If libraries are nothing more than community centers in cities and towns and on college campuses, then what do we need librarians for? Put in negative terms: Are libraries and librarians anachronistic in a digital age? Who, after all, are they serving, and how?

Libraries are more than community centers, just as librarians do more than answer questions you could easily ask Google. From the opening of the BPL, the first public library, to the expansion of public libraries across America through the Carnegie libraries, the library as an institution has been fundamental to the success of our democracy. Libraries provide access to the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfill our roles as active citizens. Libraries also function as essential equalizing institutions in our society. For as long as a library exists in most communities, staffed with trained librarians, it remains true that individuals’ access to our shared culture is not dictated by however much money they have.

For many citizens, libraries are the one place where the information they need to be engaged in civic life is truly available for free, requiring nothing more than the time to walk into a branch. The reading room of a public library is the place where a daily newspaper, a weekly newsmagazine, and a documentary film are all available for free. In many communities, the library’s public lecture room is the only place to hear candidates for office comparing points of view or visiting professors explaining their work on climate change, immigration, or job creation. That same room is often the only place where a child from a family without a lot of money can go to see a dramatic reading or a production of a Shakespeare play. (Another of these simple realities in most communities is that a big part of public librarians’ job is to figure out how to host the community’s homeless in a safe and fair manner.) Democracies can work only if all citizens have equal access to information and culture that can help them make good choices, whether at the voting booth or in other aspects of public life.

Libraries, then, are core democratic institutions today just as they were in the nineteenth century. The knowledge that libraries offer and the help that librarians provide are the lifeblood of an informed and engaged republic. This role for libraries is just as important in big cities like Boston and New York as it is in every small town in every democracy. From the rise of the public library system in late-nineteenth-century America, libraries have been the place where any citizen could go to pursue his or her own interests, free of cost.

The disappearance of libraries as we know them would affect the way our children are educated—for the worse. It would undercut the ability of immigrants to any free country to adjust well to a new system, find jobs, and join the ranks of literate working-class and middle class citizens. Libraries provide public spaces where people can congregate, share their common cultural and scientific heritage, and create knowledge. Librarians, along with archivists, maintain the historical record of our societies and our lives. By failing to invest in libraries during this time of transition away from the analog and toward the digital, we are putting all these essential functions at risk just when we need them most.

The path forward for libraries and librarians is not mysterious. Visionary leaders like Amy Ryan and her team at the Boston Public Library are charting the way forward. A reinvestment effort by Siobhan Reardon at the Free Library of Philadelphia has resulted in a $25 million grant to reimagine her city’s library. Many other librarians—in school libraries, universities, and special libraries, at technology companies and nonprofits—are likewise showing the way. The key is very simple: to focus on what digital media and the Internet make possible, not on what they undo. This perspective enables library supporters to find and exploit the ways in which the digital and the analog come together, where they reinforce one another. The Internet and digital media are enabling new kinds of services that make a real difference for all library users: for instance, librarians can find, at no cost, interactive materials ranging from original historical documents to the notes from recent city hall meetings. Physical libraries have never been more vital, interesting, useful places. The people who work in libraries are helping other people make sense of the overwhelming mass of information online—and making it immediately relevant to their lives.

We need both physical libraries and digital libraries today. Physical spaces and digital platforms will both play an essential role in providing access to knowledge in democracies around the world in the near future. If we don’t maintain physical libraries, we will lose essential public, intellectual spaces in our communities, places where people can meet face-to-face, and if we don’t build digital libraries connected to them, those physical spaces may become obsolete as big companies such as Google and Amazon increasingly meet our need for knowledge. Physical and digital libraries are interdependent: each can make the other more effective and valuable.

There are few, if any, more diverse communities in the world than the borough of Queens in the city of New York. That diversity is on clear display at its public libraries. At the Forest Hills branch library, you may not be able to find a seat on a Saturday afternoon. Patrons of many races and ages sit elbow to elbow among computer terminals. There are books there, too, on tables and in low bookshelves that line the wall, but the eye doesn’t go to the books in the room. What you can’t help but notice is that most of the patrons are sitting at computers. The place is not quiet either; chatter fills the crowded room. It’s a productive and vibrant sound, not unhappy. The predominant activity most definitely is not looking for and reading books.

The changing atmosphere in libraries, which is not limited to Queens and other big-city environments, does not spell doom for libraries. Public libraries in cities and towns across America, as well as school and university libraries, are changing their spaces and their rules to accommodate shifts in the ways people access and relate to information. Today library spaces are often vibrant—for some, too vibrant—and many libraries are setting records for attendance, circulation of materials, and provision of access to ideas and events.

The need for access to knowledge has never been greater than it is today. Although no one disputes that access to knowledge is a good thing in modern democratic societies, the problem is that access to this knowledge is unevenly distributed. Libraries, and librarians, can be a central part of solving that distribution problem if we support them and push for innovation, instead of more of the same.

The Boston Public Library and the Queens Borough Library are not outliers, but neither are they the norm. Across America and the world, libraries are in peril. Not every big-city mayor is pledging to “find the money” for a top-to-bottom renovation of historic library buildings. Queens, despite the public demand for its library system, has been among the places hardest hit over the past decade by cuts to its libraries, a leadership scandal, and controversies over spending. Too many mayors and town managers, forced to make hard budget choices, are slashing library budgets to save other essential services.

Libraries of all kinds are facing budget pressures. Worried about spiraling tuition increases, college presidents are freezing pay in libraries, reducing the rate of new book purchases, and laying off librarians and archivists. Public school libraries are under the greatest budget pressure of all in some parts of the country: they have responded by firing librarians, reducing the number of books they buy, limiting the hours that they are open, and closing school libraries outright. Library buildings are being repurposed as community centers and even bed and-breakfasts. The important cultural heritage institutions that are keepers of unique records in communities and often partner with libraries—such as archives and local historical societies are also struggling to keep their doors open. We now run a very high risk of failing to maintain complete historical records, especially those held in digital formats.

While the job of remaking physical libraries is best accomplished one at a time, with a view toward the needs of the particular community, developing digital library platforms ought to be a highly collaborative process. Individual librarians need not work alone to find fresh ways to use new technologies to reinvigorate their library’s services. Largescale digital initiatives make possible extraordinary new forms of library services. For years librarians have bandied about the possibility of creating a “digital Library of Alexandria.” Today that project is finally under way. With massive digital libraries becoming sources of knowledge, inspiration, and innovation for the global community, the possibilities are breathtaking.

It is unlikely that a single global digital library will emerge. Dozens of governments and groups of librarians are developing national-scale digital library platforms, especially in Europe, East Asia, and the United States. A series of nationally or regionally interconnected digital library platforms will not replace physical libraries but rather will support librarians and open up new opportunities for libraries to focus on the work they do best, without requiring each of them to develop redundant infrastructure and unique collections. Developing digital library platforms is a massive project, and they are taking some time to come to fruition, but one thing is clear: libraries are already innovating in important ways. Our job now as citizens and library patrons is to support them in their efforts so they can fulfill their essential role in our communities. Libraries are well on their way to becoming networked organizations that can thrive in the years to come.

Excerpted from BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.

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