In 2011, popular political comedian Bill Maher said, “We have the Internet. We don’t need a library. I don’t know anyone that has gone to a library since 1998”.
Is the tradition of putting ideas in print going the way of the dinosaurs? It can certainly seem that way these days, given all of the new technology we have for gaining knowledge and interacting with the world. Today, about half of adults in America own a tablet or an ereader. That said, tablets are used for lots of other things – often games with “bird” in the name – and not everyone who owns one is going to be reading on it. Still, it’s estimated that the number of people who will actually read an ebook in a year, amongst adults anyways, is about 28%.
That represents a large jump in recent years, but when 69% are estimated to read a print book, the value in libraries becomes apparent. Libraries provide the shelves that many of these physical books rest on, and for many who don’t want to or can’t afford purchasing new books all the time, libraries are the only feasible way to access literature.
Some of the libraries that are the strongest today, however, are those that have worked to quickly adopt and integrate the same technologies that are often touted as threatening to their lifestyle. This includes things like providing access to the internet, tablets, and even digital rentals/check-outs. In fact, many public libraries have been providing computer workstations with internet access since the 1990’s, so the concept is hardly a new one.
According to a representative from the American Library Association, a giant advocate for the industry, librarians themselves have been instrumental in the continued success and modernization of libraries. The spokesperson outlines how librarians were once primarily thought of as experts on niche content; they were well-read and book smart, with a recommendation always at the ready. Now, whether in addition to these other functions or as more of a primary focus, librarians are facilitating all different kinds of learning. These community members have undertaken the learning of new technologies and learning/research strategies and readily pass them onto children and adult patrons alike.
The public recognizes this, and in recent years libraries have still overwhelmingly been valued in opinion surveys amongst Americans over the age of 16. In fact, a recent survey by Pew Research Center in 2013 found that 90 percent of people described the closing of their library as an event that would have an impact on their community. Over two thirds said that it would affect them personally.
For many, libraries are about making connections and having access to places and resources they never would on their own – or which would at least be much less easily accessed. A recent story about a homeless man who learned to program on a donated laptop by visiting public libraries, and using their books and internet access, even made the rounds last year.
Amongst a myriad of headlines proclaiming the death of print and the classic public library, it should be a welcome change for library staff, visitors, and supporters to see that not everyone – in fact not many people at all – think as little of library visits as recent media may lead one to believe.