Libraries and the Internet

Why the Internet Will Never Replace the Public Library

Civilized nations build libraries; lands that have lost their soul close them down. —Toby Forward

“Now that we have the Internet, why do we still need public libraries?

As the Director of a large suburban library system in southeast Florida, I am sometimes asked that provocative question.  The assumption embedded in the question is that libraries are nothing more than warehouses for books and that the Internet now contains all the information anyone would need.  The questioner concludes that because they have not been to a library that no one else could possibly be doing so.. However, this assumption, much like the idea the total silence is required and that all librarians wear cardigans and own cats, is faulty at its core..

A first response to this question is to share some facts.  For example, in my public library system in Palm Beach County:

  • We had over four million visitors last year.
  • We checked out over nine million items.
  • Library staff answered hundreds of thousands of questions, and we presented over five thousand events and activities.
  • There are over 500,000 library cards in our database, meaning one in three residents of the County had a card.

These numbers clearly indicate that my residents use and value the library.  We are also changing what people expect a library to do. This includes:

  • Dropping overdue fines,
  • Loaning hotspots
  • Voter registration
  • Digital Media Labs
  • Community Research Service
  • Books Clubs in a bag

Across the country, libraries are seeing heavy use similar to the Palm Beach experience.  It is not just in the United States and Canada that libraries are central to their community but throughout Europe and Asia, libraries are growing in importance.  To understand why, the question about the role of public libraries has a deeper answer at its core. This is because public libraries are a component of society’s social infrastructure.

Most of us are familiar with community infrastructure in terms of roads, bridges, and fire stations.  While these are important items, the strength of a community is often measured in a different category of construction.  Author Eric Klinenberg popularized the idea of social infrastructure in his book “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.”  According to Klinenberg, social infrastructure is the network of institutions such as libraries, parks, civic centers, and other municipal spaces that bring people in a community together.  When such institutions are strong, communities are connected and growing. Where these institutions are weak or non-existent, communities are fragmented and declining. In his book, he cites an example where social infrastructure was literally the difference between life and death.  When a powerful heat wave moved through Chicago many years ago some communities in the city had high death tolls and others did not. The life saving difference was that communities with strong social infrastructure had in place avenues where people could find relief, check in on their neighbors, and support one another.  Those with weak infrastructure had residents stay home to suffer and sometimes die alone.

So how does a public library contribute to a strong community?  Primarily, public libraries are one of the three pillars of education in our society.  Alongside schools and colleges, libraries provide educational opportunities for residents and compliment the curriculum of the other two institutions.  However, public libraries have a key difference from schools and colleges, in that they are open to all. Whereas children age out of the school system and colleges may only be a 2-6-year long experience, public libraries provide services from cradle to grave.  They are also one of the few places in our society that embrace the democratic principles of openness and equality. No one is turned away from the public library and its resources are typically free to its residents. Income and background are irrelevant to obtaining a library card.

My library system has a vision to open minds to a world of unlimited possibilities.  We understand our members bring their hopes and dreams to the library and our role is to help them along the path to achievement.  This starts with our children who visit the library to build their early skills at reading. I have seen the look of wonder as children wander through the library, pulling down books from the shelves to read and then balancing a stack of them to take home in their small hands.  Job seekers and entrepreneurs come to the library in their search for employment opportunities and business assistance. Whether it is learning computer skills, navigating regulations, or writing a resume, libraries have the tools and resources to help them along. For those in their retirement years, the library becomes a key avenue to connect with neighbors.  Whether it is in a book discussion, learning a new skill, or volunteering their time, retires find ways to stay socially active within our walls.

As a public institution, libraries rely on taxes to exist.  Fiscally conservative individuals may believe it is a waste of taxpayer money to have public libraries.  However, many studies have shown that dollars invested in public libraries provide a huge return for the community.  For example, a 2013 study by the Florida Department of State found that for every dollar invested in public libraries, over ten dollars in economic value was returned to the community.  This impressive return is due to many different reasons. This includes the library’s role in encouraging literacy, which creates an educated workforce.  Library’s support of small business allows these enterprises to thrive, whether through educating entrepreneurs, providing free meeting space, or providing access to electronic databases with information on a wide range of topics.  The library’s role in lifelong learning ensures that residents continue to grow personally and professional to take advantage of opportunities as they appear.

Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation. —Walter Cronkite

For me, children’s services are the heart and soul of public libraries and a strong reason why they are essential to the community.  The public library is one of the first places that children encounter books. Unlike a book store where there may be reluctance to take books off the shelf since they are for sale, public library collections are meant to be used both inside and outside the buildings.  Children are free to explore any topic and genre they wish, sampling authors and titles with free rein. Developing a lifelong love of reading is often viewed as essential for success in life. With story time activities and other special events, children have an opportunity to learn in a fun environment.

Rather than destroy it, the Internet in fact has expanded the reach of public libraries.  In addition to adding electronic resources such as eBooks, the internet allows us to reach out to our residents.  Members can ask us research questions online that are answered by a real human. Our wide range of activities and events are quickly available.  With social media, libraries can bring videos and images of real library life to your favorite stream. In our buildings, the library serves as a place where residents come who can not afford the internet at home.  Through PCs and free WiFi, our residents have access to online tools.

Finally, the public library is not complete without the staff.  Librarians are one of the most trusted professions in the country, as they are true public servants.  Library staff serve anyone who walks in the door with a friendly smile and helpful assistance. In addition to reader’s advisory and answering research questions, librarians also conduct computer training classes, author talks, and cultural events.  In my library system, librarians work with community organizations to assist them with projects. For example, one local non-profit needed demographic information for a grant. After our librarians provided the data, the non-profit applied for and received a substantial amount of grant money that allowed them to carry on their operations, something they could not have done without our assistance.

The public library holds a quiet but powerful role in our community.  With society and technology in constant change, the library provides a haven for those who need to take time out of their busy life to reflect and learn.  In the end, an educated community stands a better chance of thriving in our fast paced times.. So the real question is not will the Internet replace public libraries, but instead when will you make your next visit to one!

The health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries. —Carl Sagan

(Note – quotes used in this article were found at: