All Those Techies Who Predicted the Demise of the Public Library Were Wrong

The following was written by author Wayne Wiegand as a complement to his new book, Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Indisputable fact--Americans love their public libraries. Evidence to support this statement abounds. A 2013 report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project noted that in the previous decade “every other major institution (government, churches, banks, corporations) has fallen in public esteem except libraries, the military, and first responders.” The study also found that 91% of those surveyed over sixteen years old said libraries are “very” or “somewhat” important to their communities, and 98% identified their public library experience as “very” or “mostly positive.” Another Pew study found 94% of parents believe libraries are important for their children; 84% said because libraries develop a love of reading and books.

Although in the 1980s many evangelists of information technology predicted the demise of public libraries by the turn of the century, they’ve been proven wrong. In 2012 (latest year for which we have statistics) the U.S had more public libraries than ever--17,219, including branches and bookmobiles. While the number of visits declined slightly in 2012 from 1.52 to 1.5 billion (the recession forced libraries to reduce hours by 2%; more patrons were downloading library e-books from home computers), the decade nonetheless showed a 21% increase. That same year 93 million Americans attended a public library program, a one-year increase of 4% and an eight-year increase of 38%; 65 million attendees were children, a nearly 4% increase from the previous year and a 24% increase from the previous decade. In 2012 public libraries circulated 2.2 billion items (including audio and video materials and e-books)—a 28% increase from 2003; circulation per capita showed a ten-year increase of 17%. Public libraries also provided users with access to 250,000 Internet-ready computers, 100% more per capita than a decade earlier.

Americans love their public libraries, but why? Historical research shows reasons fit into three broad categories—for the useful information they make accessible; for the public spaces they provide that help construct community; and for the transformative potential that reading, viewing, and listening to the commonplace stories that public libraries provide in a variety of textual forms.

Historical examples for each abound. First, useful information. As a Detroit teenager in the 1860s, Thomas Edison decided to read through the entire public library for scientific information. “He began with the solid treatises of a dusty lower shelf and actually read … fifteen feet in a line,” an interviewer reported. Another contemporary noted that “many times Edison would get excused from duty under pretense of being too sick to work, …and invariably strike a beeline” for the public library, “where he would spend the entire day and evening reading … such works on electricity as were to be had.” In 1899 Wilbur and Orville Wright came upon an ornithology book in the Dayton Public Library “that rekindled their interest in human flight,” writes one of their biographers. Harry Truman said in later life, ““By the time I was twelve or fourteen I had read every book in the [Independence, MO, public] library, including the encyclopedias. …Those books had a great influence on me.”  

Second, library as place. At the Atlanta Public Library’s Sweet Auburn branch—one of the few places in Atlanta’s 1930s segregated society where blacks felt welcome--director Annie Watters recalled one summer when ten-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the library several times during the week. “He would walk up to the desk and … look me straight in the eye.” “Hello, Martin Luther,” she would respond, always calling him by his first and middle names; “what’s on your mind?” “Oh, nothing, particularly.” For Watters, that was the cue that King had learned a new “big word,” and they then initiated a conversation in which King used the word repeatedly. Another game involved poetry. Again, King would stand by the desk, waiting. “What’s on your mind, Martin Luther?” Watters would ask. “For I dipped into the future, far as the human eye could see,” he responded. Watters immediately recognized the poem, and finished the verse: “Saw a vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.”

For many Americans (and I’ll bet most of my readers) visiting a public library also constituted the first place in the public sphere where they enjoyed adult privileges, and by obtaining a library card as a child formally accepted a civic responsibility to respect public property. That sense of responsibility does not go away easily. One of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s concerns after he landed US Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River on January 15, 2009, was a Contra Costa (CA) Public Library book he had aboard his plane. It might come back late, he told the Library, perhaps even water-damaged.

Third, the transformative potential of commonplace stories. In a 2008 interview, 88-year-old Pete Seeger recalled: “At age 7, a librarian … recommended me a book … about a teenager who runs away from his stepfather—who’s beating him—and is adopted by a middle-aged Indian whose tribe was massacred, and whose wife was sold into slavery, and is living alone.” That he remembered this story so vividly eight decades later, a New York Times reporter noted in a 2014 obituary, was “fitting for someone who went on to engage issues of conscience.”

For Oprah Winfrey, reading was “an open door for freedom in my life” that “allowed me to see … a world beyond my grandmother’s front porch” in Mississippi, ”that everybody didn’t have an outhouse, that everybody wasn’t surrounded by poverty, that there was a hopeful world out there and that it could belong to me.” In a small Milwaukee apartment as a nine-year-old in 1963, she read a public library copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—“the story of Francie Nolan whose life was full of humiliation and whose only friends were in books lining the public library shelves. …I felt like my life was hers.”

After her father died in 1963, nine-year-old Sonia Sotomayor buried herself in reading at her Bronx library and in the apartment she shared with her mother and brother. Her reading, she admitted, was her “solace and only distraction” that got her through this “time of trouble.” Of particular interest was “Nancy Drew,” who “had a powerful hold on my imagination. Every night, when I’d finished reading and got into bed and closed my eyes, I would continue the story, with me in Nancy’s shoes until I fell asleep.” Her mind, she noted, “worked in ways very similar” to Nancy’s. “I was a keen observer and listener. I picked up on clues. I figured things out logically, and I enjoyed puzzles. I loved the clear focused feeling that came when I concentrated on solving a problem and everything else faded out.” In 1963, most American public libraries had Nancy on their shelves. Not NYPL, however, where librarians considered series fiction “trash.” Instead, Sotomayor got her copies of Nancy from her mother--for good behavior. NYPL finally dropped the ban on series fiction in 1976.

For generations now library and government officials have argued that the public library’s most important role is to provide access to useful information that develops intelligent consumers and informed citizens—the kind of information Thomas Edison pursued in his public library that, many argue, people can now retrieve on their computers, at home. Public library users, however, show a different set of priorities. For them the tens of thousands of spaces public libraries provide for many purposes and the billions of commonplace stories they circulate in a variety of textual forms are as important as, perhaps even more important than, access to information, and for a variety of reasons.

Recent research in the fast-developing field of social neuroscience shows that substantial benefits accrue to those who experience high levels of face-to-face contact, including improved vocabularies, an increased ability to empathize, a deeper sense of belonging, and—most important--a longer lifespan. Neuroscientific research that focuses on the social nature of commonplace reading reinforces these conclusions. Fiction, notes research psychologist Keith Oatley, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex [scientific] problems, … so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

For generations now, adolescent series fiction and adult westerns, romances, horror, and science fiction novels have driven public library circulation. They still do. Through commonplace stories like these that they circulate by the billions American public libraries help empower, inform, intellectually stimulate, and inspire their readers, viewers, and listeners, just like they did for Seeger, Winfrey, and Sotomayor. And through the tens of thousands of spaces they make available to their patrons they help construct community in multiple positive ways through the billions of face-to-face encounters they nurture and the civic responsibility they teach, just like they did for Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sully Sullenberger.

Information, place, and reading. Americans love their public libraries for all these reasons—justification enough to encourage even more of our citizens to use these much-loved community incubators of personal happiness and informal self-education during September’s “National Library Card Sign-Up Month.” 

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