Only obsolete definitions of libraries are obsolete

July 1, 2011

Two articles were recently posted on our blog that address the same question: in our increasingly technology-driven age, are libraries obsolete? As a bookworm and library employee, one could justifiably say that I am heavily biased toward a resounding “no.” But even so, I think that we should get into the substance of this question.

The first article that was linked on our blog was published by the New York Times. It detailed how schools across the country are, in response to budget cuts, laying off their librarians. While some states are required by law to have a school librarian, others aren’t, and the number of librarians employed by schools has been plummeting. Indeed, schools are facing tough choices due to drastic budget cuts, but how are some schools justifying the library cuts? According to the Times article, technological advances are changing some school officials’ views on the necessity of librarians. One school official quoted in the article pointed out that because more schools are equipped with laptops and e-readers, they can do research at their desk that previously required libraries. “It’s the way of the future,” the official added.

Some politicians here and abroad are singing the same tune. The other article on this issue recently linked on our blog, entitled “Why libraries still matter” by Laura Miller of, points out that protests in Britain have erupted against closing up to 400 local libraries, while California Governor Jerry Brown announced that he was cutting all state funding to libraries. Miller writes, “Defenders of such cutbacks typically ask why, in the age of Google and e-reader devices, anybody needs libraries.”

There’s no doubt that technology has innovated our methods of research and ways to access information. But to believe that this innovation implies that libraries are obsolete, one has to have an incredibly narrow view of a library’s functions. If libraries were really being replaced by Google and e-readers, then our definition of libraries would have to be “places that house and lend print media.” Does anyone really think that this is the sole purpose of libraries?

In defense of libraries, Miller persuasively argues that they are useful not just because of their lending materials, but also for their appeal as “places.” Highlighting New York City’s flagship library, Miller illustrates that the library is not just a warehouse full of circulating books, but a uniquely quiet space that is conducive to reading, studying, surfing the web, and more.

Miller sets aside what she calls the “obvious rejoinder” that many citizens cannot afford e-readers or home internet. But what’s interesting to me about unequal access to information and technology is that it appears not to be obvious to so many people — especially certain politicians. Too often unacknowledged are the sad facts that disparities in wealth in our country have been drastically widening for the last few decades, while income mobility is far lower here than in our peer countries. iPads are fun, but they can’t do anything for low-income readers.

Fortunately, libraries provide free access to information and technology — along with a staff that can help patrons use these resources — to anyone who walks in the door. Although libraries cannot fully compensate for the inequalities of our country, they are uniquely important institutions for offering these resources and services to as many people as possible. Working in a library gives me a first-hand account of this, as it seems like a huge portion of library patrons are checking out job-seeking guides, expensive  standardized test guidebooks or language learning software, using the internet, reading periodicals that would otherwise cost them money, and more. If poverty and unequal access to technology, education and information are still with us, then how could libraries be seen as institutions of the past?

Even heavy readers with higher-than-average incomes use the library because it would be unaffordable to buy every book and magazine that they read. And even if one (erroneously) assumed that everyone is now using Kindles and iPads, they would again have to have a limited understanding of what libraries are doing in order to say that libraries have become obsolete. Just to point out two local examples, our Evanston Public Library already offers a sizeable catalog of free eBooks and the Chicago Public Library system will soon be offering books on Kindle. As new ways to read become available, libraries continually do their part to make new reading materials accessible to as many people as possible for as low of a cost as possible, using whatever technology they can afford.

But again, the definition of libraries as “places that lend reading materials” is both outdated and narrow. What else do libraries do these days? Because the easiest place to turn for examples is this library, I’d point to a recent bike drive, movie screenings for a wide age range, used books sold for $0.50 or less, an active children’s department full of educational and recreational programs, an office fully dedicated to assisting job-seekers, literature discussion groups, a department designed to serve teens that offers things like writing workshops, and boatloads of other resources, events, services, and contributions to the library-going community.

These are only a handful of examples of things offered at one library. With a little research (which libraries can help anyone conduct for free), one would find hundreds of things libraries are offering their communities across the country. But here’s the point: libraries are multifaceted educational, cultural and philanthropic institutions that serve their communities in myriad ways. Only obsolete definitions of libraries are obsolete.

–Jonathan T, Periodicals.


Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

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