Patrons consistently ask me if I think libraries are doomed. The most common question is, “With the economy the way it is, will the library close?”
The first time this question was posed to me, I went home and did a little digging. I found that a lot of libraries are in trouble and many more are facing closure each day. Budget cuts are the main reason many of the libraries have been closed, which means that it is less about the future of libraries and more about the future of the cities they provide services to. When a city closes its libraries due to budget cuts, librarians can do little to save their jobs. Without community action to save their precious stacks, libraries are often forced to close their doors forever. After reading several studies regarding the reasons that public libraries close, I found myself wondering what we might actually be able to do to save libraries.
In tough economic times, libraries have always done well. Outside of free books, the library offers services that many people would otherwise not have access to, due to financial constraints. The majority of public libraries have public access computers, which are hooked up to printers (which you can use for a nominal fee). Many offer audio and visual media that would be too expensive for individuals to purchase for themselves. In the summer, the library provides a welcome respite from the scorching temperatures, especially for those who do not have access to air-conditioning in their homes. With many school libraries closed for summer break, students more often than not turn to their local public library for reading material. The library also provides free programming for families and children. One of the arguments I have heard against library programming is that it isn’t necessary. I would like to tell those pushing that agenda that library programming is extremely important. Libraries offer programs that serve the needs of their community and their patrons. Financial planning workshops, forums for individuals to showcase creativity, life skills seminars and multicultural events are often held at libraries because they can use the space for free. I can not count how many times I have helped individuals perform a job search, type a resume or create a poster to advertise their services. The assistance I provided them was invaluable to them and all it cost them was the paper.
Another argument I have heard thrown around is that librarians are becoming obsolete. When I was working at a university library (specifically a journalism library), I had students (and professors) contact me to ask about resources, publishing information and general library services on a daily basis. Many of the students, even the most intelligent ones, were unable to look-up information on their own because they had never been taught. With the advent of the Internet, many swore it was the end of the librarian. Who needs someone to look up information for them when they have the all-powerful Internet?! The answer, the vast majority. Professors were too busy to do searches themselves and students did not understand how to tell the difference between a scholarly resource and a Wikipedia article. The technology that the university was able to afford, was often difficult to navigate and required the assistance of a librarian/library staff member. Even the stacks were often overwhelming for the students who ventured down to them. Most had not even heard of LCC or learned how it was organized until they came to the library. When they finally found the materials they were looking for, they couldn’t figure out which books would actually be useful for their projects. This was often when we would step in, offering advice and helping them choose the proper materials.
Even though municipalities often deem libraries unimportant, they are doing more than just a disservice to the people that are entrusted to them. By taking away access to educational tools and making it more difficult for individuals to discover a passion for literature, they are severely stunting future generations. When parents are no longer able to instill a love of reading in their children because of factors imposed on them by their government, (i.e., distance to a public library, lack of funding for libraries, hours that are at odds with patrons work, etc..) their children suffer. When local governments make the act of acquiring knowledge impossible or even more difficult, it becomes less of a priority for their citizens altogether. Not only does this cause a problem for these people as individuals, but the country as a whole suffers.
I would love to end this post by telling everyone that it will be alright. That everything will be just fine. However, with the recent news of Toronto’s library closures and the continuing lack of support for library funding, I can not find it in me to say that everything is going to be O.K. Without the support of their patrons and without new generations developing a passion for reading, libraries will be doomed to a slow death. I can only hope that people will continue to fight for access to libraries, the way libraries have fought to keep knowledge accessible to the public. My one wish is for libraries to remain as important to future generations as it has been to past ones. I think author Sidney Sheldon really summed up what libraries mean for our society when he said, “Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life. Libraries change lives for the better.”
I hope that, in some small way, I make life better for my patrons.