United Smarts of America: The Continuing Need For Libraries

NPR posed the question, "do we really need libraries?" I bet you can guess the answer. 

For more than 100 years public libraries in this country have provided all members of the public with free access ... coveted access, to knowledge, information, and opportunity. Public libraries evened the playing field for allAll in all, [Andrew] Carnegie — in Johnny Appleseed fashion — planted 1,679 library buildings in communities throughout the nation between 1886 and 1919, according to the National Park Service. From Caribou, Maine, to Clarksdale, Miss; from Honolulu to Miles City, Mont. Many of the structures are grandiloquent cathedrals — edification edifices, little Louvres for the intellect — designed to send the message: Learning is everlasting.

They also gave us the sense that we lived in the United Smarts of America.

But with a world of information at our fingertips — virtually anytime, anywhere — do we still need physical book-and-mortar libraries? 

As a 1983 British conference on libraries observed, "We are a long way off producing true cost benefit data where you can assign a credible cash figure to the value of using any type of library." The proceedings of the 1983 conference, by the way, were titled: "Do We Really Need Libraries?" The answer seems self-evident. We are asking the same question more than 30 years later and many libraries are teeming with people. As the British study pointed out, there is a lot of opportunity when reckoning with naysayers "for developing costs per benefits but we do need to spend more time establishing exactly what these benefits are." 

What are the benefits of libraries in this day and age?

Like a good librarian, Tony Marx of the New York Public Library has some answers. Today's libraries still lend books, he says. But they also provide other services to communities, such as free access to computers and Wi-Fi, story times to children, language classes to immigrants and technology training to everyone.

"Public libraries are arguably more important today than ever before," Marx says. "Their mission is still the same — to provide free access to information to all people. The way people access information has changed, but they still need the information to succeed, and libraries are providing that."

Or as Andrew Carnegie said many years ago: "A library outranks any other thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert."

This article is a perfect example of the changing landscape of libraries but that the relevance of libraries still remains. We've been having the relevance discussion for decades. We are constantly "spend[ing] more time establishing what [the] benefits [of libraries] are." It's hard to rely on the basic "access to information" premise in light of shrinking budgets and naysayers, but libraries are necessary as "clinics of the soul." And will continue to be so.


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