The continuing value of public libraries

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Vancouver Public Library

Vancouver Public Library. Photo by David Guion, Feb. 18, 2005

In the past ten years new downtown libraries have opened in Seattle, Montreal, Salt Lake City, that I have been able to locate in a reasonable amount of time. San Diego is in the process of building a new one. Downtown libraries in San Francisco and Vancouver are only five or six years older. In addition, other major cities around the United States and Canada have built new branch libraries. New libraries have also gone up in numerous smaller cities and towns. Haven’t they heard that the future on books is uncertain?

The new Montréal Grande Bibliothèque had 2.75 million visitors last year and averages 9000 very diverse users every day. Although hard times threaten libraries, along with all other municipal services, with budget cuts, libraries have passional and vocal supporters.

It’s amazing how many people–or at least people with the public purse strings–still think of the library as a collection of dusty books, a fading relic of old times in the Internet age. Not everyone has Internet at home. The poor largely can’t afford it. Many other people have only dial-up Internet at home, one reason being that high-speed Internet has not yet reached all of the rural areas.

We now have the term “digital divide” to describe the yawning gulf of opportunity that would work greatly to the detriment of the have-nots if it were not for the free computers available at public libraries. Oh, and when people have high-speed Internet service at home, there may still be plenty of reason for them to use the computers at the library. Where better to try out and learn new software before buying it?

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to describe libraries, coffee shops, and other informal meeting places that are neither home nor the standard workplace. For a growing number on Internet entrepreneurs, though, the library might be their chosen office. That’s because libraries are very often wireless hot spots. And despite the fact that libraries now have plenty of places for socializing and conversation, they are certainly quieter than coffee shops. They are also more conducive to carving out a good work space. Plus library patrons have no obligation to buy anything to eat or drink.

The next time you hear anyone saying that libraries are on their way out, take it as certain evidence that they have not spent much time in one. Recognize that they have no clue what goes on in a modern library. They speak from total ignorance. Pay no attention to them–unless, of course, they are city councilors or county commissioners. In that case, go to the library, look around for yourself, and tell them what valuable service the library still provides in the digital era.

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