Monday, March 15, 2010

Will Public Libraries Disappear?

In an interesting post about public libraries and the future of reading, Lorne Daniel raises the following:

In my life and the lives of others, libraries are about much more than inexpensive borrowing. Yet the question remains: would we citizens of the 21st century invent public libraries if they didn’t already exist? Will we even make the effort to keep our current libraries ticking?

The same techno wave that is challenging printed newspapers, magazines and books is poised over libraries. Google, e-books and online downloading are growing exponentially. Many libraries are trying to keep up, and online visits are beginning to rival in-person visits. But what is the future for digital access? It is not likely to consist of thousands of small-town libraries each trying to create unique portals to the same knowledge base.

“Libraries are only taking up valuable real estate after all,” writes Michael Elcock in a recent edition of BC Bookworld. “Who will need downtown libraries when the world’s intellectual works are available in everyone’s home? Eventually we may need only one library… and that may be Google.” As Elcock points out, “Google may be many things, but philanthropic is not one of them.”

As a writer and book lover, I have often wondered about these kinds of issues. I'm an editor of an online literary journal, I blog, and I read a lot of material online, from Buddhist blogs to political commentary. At the same time, I enjoy a trip to the library for many reasons. The coming together of the community being high on the list. It's very concerning how little public space is available in many places these days. How many people must go to the mall to do some walking in the winter, or to gather a group of friends for a night of fun? I don't know about you, but malls to me are some of the deadest, most controlled environments outside of jails and prisons. Every detail is designed to sell and nothing else, and yet, how often do you find public squares, open public buildings, or other public spaces in the suburbs (and even in some cities)? Hell, even sidewalks and parks have been eliminated in some places, victims of the drive to "develop" every last acre of land in the name of the unwritten God of North Americans: the Dollar.

Ben Franklin, and the others who started the first lending libraries in the United States, would probably be wondering what our goals are these days. In fact, they might make a link between lack of public space and the terrible state of pubic discourse and civic action.

*Above is a photo of my community library, complete with public transit vehicle (i.e. Bus). We were fortunate that they completed work on the building a few years before the economy tanked.)


Jeanne Desy said...

This is just to say that I have loved libraries since I was five years old. I still love actual books, though it is true that I almost never consult those on the wall in my study. The smell of paper, the feel of it. Going to bed with a book of poetry. But I think the printed book is going to become a fine art alternative to the ordinary digibook.

Algernon said...

Thank you for mentioning the public space -- a public space that, by the way, is not structured in a way that benefits people who have money. Anybody can use the library. And unlike the corner bookstore or the Wal-Mart, the library is apt to have political books (although even this is not guaranteed), history books, books on comparative religion and mythology. It's a space where anybody can expose themselves, for free, to a broad range of ideas and information.

Even where there are free libraries, the poor have to have a way to get to them, and time to utilize them. Access is not guaranteed. Meanwhile, society is taking broad steps away from that service. Without the ability to access such a rich resource, there will follow lack of interest.

Who benefits from that?

Nathan said...

I hope the printed book holds out awhile. Even though I enjoy the internet, I can't imagine not having some books around to flip through whenever I want to. The physical object is important.


I totally agree it's troubling that libraries are often the first on the cutting block, or second (parks being the first) when city, town, and regional boards run short of money. Minnesota has been hit hard by Governor Pawlenty's deliberate efforts to destroy state aid to local governments, while saying he hasn't raised taxes. This guy is running for President, so I hope everyone hears it loud and clear that when Pawlenty says "no new taxes," he really means "I'm passing the buck."