I heard a most disturbing comment the other day, “What do we need libraries for? The Internet is the best library and it's free.”
Now, I am an enormous fan of the Internet. I refer to it constantly through various pieces of technology – it is ubiquitous, omnipresent, and has revolutionized, well…pretty much everything. The ease and convenience of accessing virtually any information we wish has reshaped how we do business, build relationships, raise families. It’s hard to find something or someone who has not in some way been affected by the digital phenomenon. Even the Amish are online.
Many people are predicting the demise of the traditional library system as we know it. Eliminating the need for bricks and mortar edifices holding stacks upon stacks of aging paper products in constant need of preservation, the Internet and its resources make information immediate, at our fingertips, accessible to so many in ways Gutenberg couldn’t have possibly foreseen. No waiting for checkout. No waiting for an available copy. No sharp shushes from frustrated librarians trying to keep the peace. Lest we not forget, it’s eco-friendly too (as long as you discount the issues with electronic media disposal – but hey, you’re saving the trees, right?).
Even libraries themselves have jumped on the tech bandwagon. They’ve been providing access to the Internet for years to those who may not have the luxury of their own technology. And for those that do, often the library provides access to databases otherwise unavailable to the individual user. Library systems offer e-books, available for checkout and return just like the old paper models, but now instead of remembering at the last minute to run that old paper model back to book drop at midnight to avoid the fee, all it takes is a swipe of a finger. And so, certainly, they deserve a pat on the back for evolving and staying current.
However, libraries are more than just a storehouse of information. Or they should be. Where I grew up, in a small suburb of New York City, our public library certainly was. Granted, it didn’t have the age of the Internet to contend with – everyone needed to go to the library for schooling or reference – everyone had to figure out that card catalog and that Dewey Decimal System. But the library was so much more than that. It made itself the heart of a community.
We were lucky in the fact that ours was a two-story library, which perhaps was critical to its success. The top floor, which you could walk into since it was built into a hillside, offered all the standard library services. It was on that level that the library hosted summer reading programs, which always had lines out the door with kids excited to report the books they had read to get their next cool cut-out character with their name on it posted to the wall for everyone to see. I think Star Wars was their biggest year. If you could read enough books to get the Millennium Falcon, you were bound for the Ivy League. From time to time, they would offer quiet workshops that integrated into sections of the library – origami and sewing for crafts, life writing for autobiographies, etc.
The ground level, which you could also walk into from the parking lot because of that hillside design, hosted a multitude of community-oriented programming that brought folks from all different neighborhoods. It was sizeable enough that multiple programs could happen simultaneously, which supported the surrounding community like no other facility. You could attend various film series, book clubs, painting classes, even exercise classes from time to time. Girl Scouts could meet there, as could Cub Scouts, Ladies’ Auxiliary and Rotary Clubs. Chamber music groups would rehearse, and inevitably perform, bringing even more folks in. And all the while, an art gallery, with a rotating exhibition was on site to promote the local art culture. There was hardly a reason for anyone in our town to not go to the library for something, at some time.
I haven’t quite had the same experience with the public library system here in Florida…yet. I think there was a time in Tampa history when libraries were deprioritized, provided reluctantly and given bare bones to fill an immediate need. But from recent visits to some of the newer facilities, and seeing action being taken from what appears to be a thoughtful and motivated Library Board, libraries may become what they should be here in Hillsborough County. So I hold out hope.
The future certainly holds a place for the library. And I look forward to making it as much a part of the next generations’ lives as it was of mine.